Sunday, December 27, 2009

Happy Holidays!

I'm taking a few days off from MFA/MFYou. Happy holidays, everyone, and don't forget to check the website on January 1st, when our very fabulous Issue 3 should be up. I'll be back on the newsletter next week.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Life After Workshop

I want to talk today about writer’s groups. No, not writer’s workshops. I’m talking about non-academic, not-for-university-credit, voluntary writer’s groups. I’ve recently gotten involved with one of these writer’s groups. Being a recent MFA graduate, it’s hard for me not to compare this other sort of writer’s group to the traditional grad school workshop, and I have to say, I find this sort of group immensely more useful.

Here’s the thing: the group of writers that I’m involved with is a group of people whose opinions and work I respect in a different way than the general respect I would give to everybody in a workshop setting. Sure, you should value any feedback that anybody gives you – feedback is precious and no matter who offers it, and no matter why, you should listen to it with an open mind – but feedback coming from people who write and read in similar styles to your own is, let’s face it, much more useful than feedback from people who would never read the sort of thing that you write unless they had to . . . for workshop.

Also important is how much you personally like the sort of writing that the other writers in your group do. If you’re not a particular writer’s audience, if he or she is doing things in his or her own work that would never interest you as a reader, that person’s feedback might not be as useful to you as another writer who is actually writing the sort of thing you would read in the real world.

There’s a lot to be said for starting your own group peopled with writers whose work and tastes match your own, and there are other advantages besides the audience issue, too. My writer’s group spent our first meeting discussing how we want to run each session. Rather than having a professor decide for the entire group how each session will be run, how much work each person can submit, and what sort of feedback the writers can give each other, we worked these things our for ourselves. The result is that our discussions are much more efficient because they are tailored to our own specific needs.

We are also able to guide the feedback, if we need to. If I know that you’ve already revised this piece twelve thousand times, I might offer you different feedback than if I know it’s a first draft and hasn’t yet found its footing. Likewise, if I know that you’re planning to submit this piece to, say, The Paris Review, I might give you different feedback than if I know that you’re not planning on submitting it at all, that you’re just writing it for therapeutic reasons or for an experiment.

In addition, writing group discussions are much more organic outside of an academic setting. The same is true, I’ve found, when you compare a conversation between a group of friends who all happened to read the same book to a formal classroom discussion, guided by a teacher or a fellow student who is leading the discussion, and always with the intention of making the discussion last for a specific amount of time. Those time constraints are the biggest issue for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt frustrated with a workshop discussion that degenerates to nitpicky sentence level complaints because there are still fifteen more minutes allotted to that piece, or on the other side a really useful discussion gets cut short because class is over.

I did, I should say, have one workshop in grad school that pretty much felt like the writer’s group I’m part of now, but for the most part, academic workshops are useful, but the boundaries of the classroom setting prevent them from being as useful as a home grown sort of writer’s group would be.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Reading Muse

I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting my writing momentum back up after moving over the summer. For the first couple of months here, I was preoccupied with finding a job, getting unpacked, and learning my way around a new town. Then I was preoccupied (and stressed) with getting adjusted to a new job. Then with adjusting to another new job. Then with quitting the second job. Then figuring out how we were going to scrape by on my income from only the one job. . . .

So for the past few months I’ve been trying different things to get myself engaged with writing. Some of them have worked – well, sort of – like jogging my brain with a writing prompt to get those creative juices flowing and then immediately shifting my attention to another, more important (to me) project. Some of them have failed miserably, like trying to draft in my head while I’m making the hour and a half commute to work, and then expecting that once I get to a computer I will be bursting with ideas that I just can’t wait to write down.

What I didn’t try, and I now realize may have been the most successful of all, was picking out a book that would match the sort of writing project I felt like working on, and then simply reading that book and letting it be my muse.

I’ve been struggling my way through reading a collection of short stories for something like a month and a half – has it really been that long? A month and a half spent reading one single book! It isn’t that the short stories in the collection are bad. In fact, I like the stories quite a lot; I like the writing style; I like this writer’s dry sense of humor, her poetic voice. But I haven’t been in a short story kind of mood. Well, it turns out that my reading mood matches my writing mood. I haven’t felt like writing short stories, and I haven’t felt like reading them, either. That’s why I spent so much time just trying to force myself through one book.

I’ve been trying to decide between working on the, oh I don’t know, let’s say one millionth draft of a children’s book of mine and a second draft of a novel. I’ll settle on one, open up the file and try to immerse myself in the story, and very quickly my mind will start to wander to one of the many other things I probably should be doing – I just don’t feel inspired. But any seasoned writer will tell you that it’s not a question of waiting for inspiration. If you wait for inspiration you might never write a thing, or you might write so sporadically that you’ll never really improve.

At any rate, I finished the story collection the other day and decided that I felt like reading a children’s book next. I picked up a book I’ve been dying to read for some time now and was almost instantly sucked into a whimsical adventure story. And you know what else? I started getting excited about my children’s book all over again. Delving, as a reader, into the sort of book that I want to write inspired me to get back to work on my own book.

It makes sense. I mean, isn’t that why we become writers to begin with? Because we are avid readers, and because the things we read inspire us? We don’t create in a sort of vacuum; everything that we read and have read informs each new piece that we write. And the things that we read that really engage us send our minds reeling with limitless possibilities, limitless new ideas just waiting to be written.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Short Stuff, Revisited

For a long time now I’ve found myself torn between my belief that it’s important that writers who are just starting out in their careers be working on book length projects, and my absolute certainty that you have to start at the bottom and work your way up (the bottom in this case being getting short pieces published in small literary journals).

It’s kind of a contradictory idea, or at least it may seem that way at first. Which is it? What should we be spending our time on: the short stuff that we can submit to journals or the long stuff that we can use to query agents and book publishers? Well I still firmly say both, and something happened to me this past week that might help illustrate why.

As you may or may not be aware, I divided my time fairly evenly in grad school between working on multiple drafts of a full length novel and writing and revising numerous short stories. Most of my peers spent their time on one or the other (and the scale, at UAF anyway, was tipped dramatically on the side of short stories alone). I started grad school as an unpublished and largely undisciplined writer, and left with a handful of small publication credits on my CV and a full length novel that I was ready to send out.

A couple of days ago I received an email from the editor of 34th Parallel, a small journal that published a flash fiction piece of mine about a year ago. The editor forwarded to me an email he had received from an assistant at a New York literary agency. She had read the issue of the journal with my story and wanted to know if I had a novel in the works that I could query the agency with. An important side note here is that she specifically stated that the agency is not interested in short story collections.

Before I go on I have to pause and remind you that this doesn’t necessarily mean anything, or at least, it means nothing more than that she liked my story. I sent my query in immediately, but I may never hear back, or I may receive a form rejection, who knows? Boiled down to its most basic parts, this is still nothing more than a query.

But the point is that there are two important components that made this rather exciting opportunity possible (after all, whether they ultimately reject my novel or not, I was lucky enough to rise to the top of the slush pile with this agency: they actually requested that I query them!): I had to have a story published in a journal, so that the agency assistant could even find me in the first place, and I had to have a novel already ready to go, so that I could answer the agency’s request that I query them with a novel with anything other than: Thanks but . . . I don’t have anything to send to you . . .

The moral of the story? It is important to be working on both. Besides the fact that queries that have no publication history to speak of in the author’s bio paragraph probably don’t look very impressive, getting shorter pieces out there in literary journals can get you noticed by literary agents. They do read lit journals, keeping their eyes out for new talent, and I’m sure that they pay closer attention to the queries from those writers whose work they already know they like than that mass of random strangers who send hundreds and hundreds of unsolicited queries to them every week. Yes, the short stuff is important, and so is the long stuff. If you want to make it out there, your best bet is to try to master both.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Another Post about Time

As the month of November rapidly approaches its end, bringing the year 2009 close on its heels, and as I accept the truth that I will not meet my writing goal for the month yet again, I’m finding myself wondering how people in the real world – ordinary, working class people, people without rich spouses or independent wealth – ever reach any level of success in the arts. I was so sheltered in my MFA program for the past three years that I honestly forgot how hard it really is to find time to write, when so much of your time is taken up with the drudgery of survival. The have to’s of life.

This is something I’ve been talking about a lot lately, I know, and the reason I’ve been talking about it so much is because I’m realizing more and more that it really is a ceaseless struggle for most of us. Most of us will never get a million dollar book deal. Many of us will never even get an agent. Some of us may never even get a book published at all. In other words, most of us will always have to find the time. Make the time. Carve it from stone, as seems to be most writers’ metaphor of choice.

I haven’t met a single writing goal (I’ve met submissions goals, but those are different) since I graduated with my MFA. In fact, for this entire year I’ve only completely met my writing goal once: for the month of January. My last few months as a student were spent busily filling out graduation paperwork and preparing for an epic move. A majority of my summer was spent in the midst of said move, as well as working on a couple of critical articles that are being published in literary magazines and finding a job – and otherwise getting my bearings – in a new state. Okay, but what about after that?

Maybe it’s partly that I lost my momentum. Maybe it’s partly that I still haven’t quite gotten used to this new life. But I think a lot of it really, truly is that I just don’t have the time anymore. I don’t. When I was a student I had heard stories about past graduates who absolutely stopped writing after they got their degrees. One guy told me, a year after he finished, that he had decided to take a month off from writing after he graduated and had just never gotten around to starting back up again. Another graduate – a friend of a friend – had graduated three years before me, and she hadn’t written a thing since she finished. I could go on. There are many more.

I am not exactly like those people. I haven’t stopped writing. No, I haven’t been meeting my goals, but I do still write. But I don’t write as much as I’d like to and I don’t write as much as I believe is necessary to really get to where I want to be. I’m beginning to realize that I will probably never be able to consistently meet my golden three hour a day goal (a goal that was difficult, only sometimes manageable, even when I was an MFA student). Lately, I haven’t even been able to meet a one hour a day goal. So what’s to be done?

Well, one interesting point that one of my husband Damien’s professors made recently is that maybe we’re wrong to think we should always be writing. Maybe we should completely reevaluate the way we look at how we spend our time. Of course you can’t never write and reasonably call yourself a writer. But what about the time you spend doing other things that then gives you inspiration in your work? What about the time you spend thinking about the world around you, an absolutely indispensable part of being a good writer? Or engaging in stimulating conversations with other people? Observing humanity in all of its brutal beauty?

While I think it’s important to keep carving away at that fabled time stone – we should still write and write often, if we can – maybe we shouldn’t get so down on ourselves when we don’t write as often as we feel we should. Maybe that just makes it worse. Maybe that just misses the point altogether. Because the point – isn’t it? – is that we do this because we have to. We do it because it’s how we make sense of this mysterious world around us. We don’t do it for the quantifiable final products. We do it for the experience. We do it because it makes all that time spent doing other things feel like it all means something, feel like it matters.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Larger Horizon

One topic that tends to come up in cover letters for submissions to MFA/MFYou is the idea that there is a lot to be gained as a writer from having real life experiences, completely unrelated to literature and creative writing. Many non-MFA writers suggest that the time they didn’t spend studying writing in an academic setting they instead spent having real experiences that they can now translate into their work. Having jobs that non-writers will be able to relate to. Visiting interesting places. Getting to know all kinds of interesting people (and not having a majority of their friends and colleagues be writers and literature scholars).

Lately I’ve been revising a novel. I wrote the first draft while I was a grad student, during a break between drafts of my graduate thesis. I had came up with what I still think is a great premise and a really fun character, and then I sat down and banged together a rough draft, just trying to feel the plot out as I went. But something was off. It was bad even for a first draft. The plot was dull and contrived and all the characters except for the main character seemed like caricatures of particular types f people

I still felt like the core idea had potential, but I had no idea how to tap that potential. I looked at the draft from every angle. I picked it apart for elements of craft and looked closely at how each component of the story functioned, ultimately trying to determine why the novel wasn’t working as well as how I could make it work. I realized that the problem was as fundamental as the plot. The problem wasn’t the perspective, or the structure, or the metaphors and analogies and symbols I used throughout. The problem was that the plot was completely boring and uninspired.

I decided that I wasn’t mature enough, as a writer and a human being, to write this novel. I needed to live several more years of life first and have varied experiences, meet strange and interesting people, and gain a broader perspective on the world around me, all of which I could then weave into the story to make it come to life. And so I set the novel aside and began work on another project in the meantime.

But I’ve recently gotten back to work on this novel. I had one of those flashes of inspiration that pointed me in the direction of where this novel needs to go, and it came from taking one foot out of the world of literature and creative writing. I’m still part of that world, certainly, but I took a couple of steps away after I graduated. I began teaching at what is primarily a technical college, took a second job in retail, and even more valuable, began spending more time exploring a totally unrelated-to-literature interest of mine. And suddenly, a few days ago, it hit me what I should do with the novel. I’ve been enthusiastically working on the next draft ever since.

I’m a huge proponent of the value of creative writing programs, but I do think it’s true, too, that an English education alone will not give you the tools to write interesting, engaging, worthwhile literature. Studying craft is important, but so is knowing about interesting things and having experiences that are completely separate from the world of books and artistry. It’s not enough to know how to write. You also need something to write about.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

When I started going to school for my MFA, one of the major things I expected that people got from these programs was important contacts that might lead to agents and publishers in the future. I had heard countless stories – all about the most prestigious programs in the country, I’m sure – where at the end of a young writer’s MFA studies, a faculty writer refers the young writer to his or her agent and just like that, the writer is set.

I quickly found out that this is not as common as we might have been led to believe by the success stories we’ve all heard. Yes, the chances are good that many of the faculty writers in an MFA program have agents. But the chances are not good at all that they will refer you to their agents. My guess is that even at those top tier programs, it’s not a common practice.

But in my experience most agents will tell you that the number one way to get them interested in you is to be referred by one of their current clients. So what’s a young writer just starting out in the publication world to do? The answer, I think, is keep honing your craft, keep writing, and keep submitting to journals, and be patient. It may not be likely that you’ll be referred to an agent while you’re in an MFA program, but that doesn’t mean that the contacts you make there won’t help you down the road.

Part of what I sometimes forget is that if you’re at the MFA level, you’re probably not at the professional level, not yet. That’s not to say that most people don’t start getting published in journals while they’re in an MFA program, or at least shortly thereafter, but I bet if you asked most seasoned writers, editors, and agents how many MFA students and recent MFA graduates are actually ready for agents, book deals, deadlines, and everything else that goes along with being a professional writer, the answer would be not many.

The two people that make up the fiction faculty at UAF are both successful writers: one has won some prestigious awards for his short story collections, and the other had her most recent novel accepted by an imprint of a major publishing house. Both graduated with their MFAs from UAF, and both had to wait several years after earning their MFAs before they got their first books published. I think it’s fairly common for ten, even fifteen years to pass between graduating from an MFA program and getting that first book deal.

But you do meet a lot of other writers in a program, and while none of you probably have agents or useful contacts yet, many of you will eventually. Maybe ten years after graduating, your good friend Joe Writer lands an agent and is more than willing to refer you, his old grad school pal, his writer friend who he’s kept in touch with and shared work with these past ten years. Or maybe you’ll be the lucky one who gets to refer your grad school friends. Who knows?

I think the main contacts you make in grad school are not actually the faculty or visiting writers, although you do gain a lot by learning from these successful writers. But really, you and all your fellow MFAers are networking with each other. It might not seem like your workshop buddy is a useful contact yet – after all, he’s at the same stage as you in his career – but as you move forward, so will he, and so will most of the other people in your program. Together, you will all be part of the next generation of writers, and you’ll all be able to say you knew each other back when. You’ll all be able to help each other out.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

More on the Slush Pile

I want to talk about something that’s kind of a sensitive subject, a subject I’ve been avoiding talking about for some time because, while I think it’s extremely illuminating when it comes to the inner workings of literary journals, it may make a particular literary journal that I used to read for look bad.

So I’m going to start by pointing out that I don’t think that this practice is uncommon at all, particularly not amongst the journals that are run by MFA programs, which many literary journals are. And I would also add that even those literary journals that don’t technically do these sort of slush pile parties are still probably making decisions based on the same kinds of variables and gut reactions (that’s right, I said “gut” and not “visceral.” You know why? Because I’m not a pretentious a-hole). And finally, I would remind you that though this certainly doesn’t seem an effective way to wade through the slush pile, I don’t know that there is an effective way. The slush pile is massive and is ever growing; the people who have to read submissions simply do not have the time to give every single submission a fair chance. It’s a sad truth about the publication world.

The way the slush pile party works is this: all the editors and readers for a journal get together and the stacks and stacks of unread submissions are placed in front of them on a table. They have got to get that slush pile knocked out because more submissions are arriving every day and the older submissions simply have to be decided on before the pile gets any larger. So they dive in. They work through submission after submission as quickly as possible, trying to move on to the next and the next in the hopes of finishing and being able to leave at some reasonable hour. Which means, as you can imagine, not actually reading most of the submissions all the way through (not the prose ones, at least). It means reading every submission looking for a reason, any reason at all, to stop reading and reject. And many submissions, believe me, don’t get more than their first page read. Many submissions don’t get read beyond their first few sentences.

But this is a social event as well as a job. That’s why they call it a “party.” Sure, the term is sarcastic, but even as it is it’s also kind of serious. This is a chance for a bunch of friends to get together and share with each other what is normally very solitary work. There is a loud din of chatter going on during the entire event, and it’s very difficult to actually focus on reading through all that noise.

But what really depressed me the first time I went to one of these events wasn’t just the fact that submissions were not getting read carefully, that there was so much noise it would have been difficult to read something all the way through even if you had the time to. What made me almost want to give up was the fact that one of the major ways that the readers socialized with each other was by making fun of the submissions. (Again, I remind you: this, I am absolutely certain, is common practice. I can’t even count the times I’ve read about an editor who claims that almost everything in the slush pile is terrible. This is a sort of making fun, as is that fabled “wall of shame” we’ve all heard about, where editors will pin up on the wall, as a joke, some really terrible submission or cover letter.)

Now sometimes there really are truly terrible submissions. Some submissions are just asking to be made fun of. But some of them aren’t. Most of them aren’t. Most of them are well written, interesting stories or poems that are getting made fun of because the reader isn’t reading carefully. The other people in the room laugh along with the initial reader, who perhaps stops to read a sentence aloud, and they’re laughing not because it’s a terrible sentence but because the sentence is being offered to them as a joke. Because they understand that they’re supposed to think it’s terrible, and so they do.

I don’t know that there’s any absolutely foolproof way to guarantee that your work makes it through the slush pile alive. I suggested last week that one trick is to make sure you’re doing something new, but even then I think whether your submission gets read fairly probably has more to do with luck than anything else. But here’s the bright side: when you do get rejected, you shouldn’t take it personally. I know I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again but seriously, rejections don’t mean much in the big picture. Acceptances are all that really matter, and maybe rejections that actually give you personal feedback or encouragement. Form rejections, though? Just brush them off. Throw them out or file them away or nail them to your wall or burn them in a primal ritual, whatever your method is, but whatever you do, don’t let them get you down.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

That Great Big Pile of Slush

This past week I volunteered with a group of my colleagues at Zane State College to judge a fifth grade essay contest put on by the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio. It was an interesting and fun experience and it reminded me a lot of the slushpile parties that Permafrost, UAF’s graduate student run literary journal, used to have. If you had walked in on us judging the essay contest, you would have found a group of exhausted looking English faculty sitting around a table with stacks and stacks of contest entrants in the center, and at our feet you would have seen stacks of essays that had already been judged. As the day wore on we got more and more draggled looking, I’m sure, and by the end of the day we were admittedly somewhat rushing through the essays, trying to just finish up already so we could get out of there. It was fun . . . but it was an all day thing and by the end of “all day” pretty much any activity begins to wear on you.

Even though we spent the first hour or so of the day norming our standards, we disagreed on a lot of things. While any essay that scored under a certain point got tossed to the side immediately, many of the essays had to be read by at least two readers. If the disagreement by those two readers was large enough, the essay would go to a third reader. It was fascinating to see how all these English instructors that all teach at the same institution could have such different reactions to the very same essays. Ultimately the winners were essays that we were able to come to some sort of a consensus on, though often the winner in one category would be the one that three or four people thought was the best, and the rest of the people just sort of agreed to accept the decision since the one that they would have chosen wasn’t going to get a majority vote.

This experience very much mirrored reading for a literary journal. You start with stacks of submissions and the feeling that you’re in over your head. Some of the submissions are going to be at a low enough level – however you even gauge that! – that you don’t have to spend much time with them. Others will have different readers in total disagreement. One reader might think it’s good but it should be rejected for X reason. Another might argue that X reason is nowhere near important enough to reject such a good piece. Yet another might think the whole thing is crap and it should be rejected now before anybody wastes any more time arguing about it.

Some editors and agents say that there are good submissions and there are bad submissions. The good ones will get published and the bad ones won’t. Period. This is absurd! It completely ignores how subjective literature is, for one thing, and it also relies on the fallacy that there are no other variables going into the reading process. If I grab a submission off the slushpile after I’ve been at it for four hours, I might, through no fault of my own, be less inclined to give it a fair read as I would have been if I had grabbed it at the beginning of my reading session. If the particular submission in question happens to be 25 pages long – forget about it! I don’t want to read another 25 pages right now. I’m probably going to be looking for any excuse I can find to stop reading and reject it. This is all completely subconscious. You don’t pick up a submission and consciously think, “I don’t think I’m going to give this a fair chance.” But the variables, the variables!

With the essay contest, what it really came down to, I feel, is that the essays that were saying something different from the other essays were the ones that rose to the top. Most of the essays were extremely similar. This did not make them inherently bad. It did, however, make them boring, at least after you had already read several others about the exact same topic. The same is true with submissions. You might get a really well crafted story that just happens to remind you of any number of other stories you’ve read or that have been submitted to your journal, and you’re going to reject it because even though it’s good, it bores you. I’ve received rejections like this, rejections telling me that the writing is excellent but the topic is nothing new. I’ve written rejections like this, too.

The fact is it’s the ones that are doing something we’ve never seen before that seem to be the ones we all agree that we like.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Get Some Rest!

The MFA/MFYou newsletter is going to take a week off . . . because I am extremely sick. I'll be back next week, I promise, all rested up and ready to write your ears off. Or should I say eyes?

Sunday, October 18, 2009


As the first full week of my new part time retail position draws to a close and the two stacks of papers that I have to grade for my classes remind me that they won’t grade themselves, I’m beginning to rethink my old idea that there is no such thing as no time to write. I haven’t been able to find a single second to write in the past week until right now, and even now I’m sort of choosing not to do what I should be doing so that I can spend a few minutes writing this. I’m already so drastically behind in my writing goal for the month that I don’t believe it’s possible to catch up, even if I quit the retail job right now . . . but I’ll come back to that later.

There’s this image that we have of the starving writer. The person so dedicated to writing that he or she behaves totally irresponsibly in all other aspects of life. Makes no real effort to hold down a job. Ignores family and friends in favor of writing. Ignores his or her own physical health, even, and hygiene, all in the name of art. We’ve all heard the stories. People who went on to great success and who will tell you that part of the reason they made it is because they made the conscious decision that writing was more important than, say, earning a steady income.

I always used to think that sort of behavior was utterly unacceptable. Artist or not, there are certain things we all have to do to survive. I thought that these success stories stand out only because these people got lucky. That for every one such success story there were probably hundreds of stories with similar beginnings but that ended with the person starving to death on the streets or at least eventually giving up the dream.

Well I’ve been realizing lately that what those stories are really about, I think, is sacrifice. That sometimes we have to make sacrifices so that we have time to write. It could be sleeping for an hour less, or not going out drinking with your friends on Saturday nights, or not watching TV, or, in my case, not working that extra job to bring in extra money.

This past week and a half, since I started the new job, I haven’t felt like a writer at all. I haven’t really been a writer, to tell you the truth. A writer is a person who writes, and I haven’t been meeting that one simple requirement. And the thing is there’s nothing that I could really sacrifice besides the job. I don’t watch TV. I haven’t been playing video games. I haven’t even been reading. I’ve been working the two jobs, and that’s it. I even had to schedule time to go on a date with my husband, Damien, the other day (and I fell behind on my grading as a result).

I see two possible choices that I can make here. I can choose to be a writer and quit this retail job so that I can have time to write, or I can choose not to be and keep the job so that we’ll have a more comfortable amount of money coming in. Between my meager income as a teacher and Damien’s as a TA, we make enough to scrape by. It’s a tight scrape and it will involve a lot of other sorts of sacrifices, but we’d have enough for all the basic stuff you have to pay for to get by.

And I’d rather be a poor writer than a financially comfortable nothing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Being and Writingness

I heard somewhere recently that when we visualize ourselves reaching whatever ultimate goal we have – whatever sort of success we are looking for in life – we are setting ourselves up for failure. This, of course, is an overstatement, and it’s also not really that innovative of an idea, either. But we do hear motivational speakers and self help books rely on this somewhat wrongheaded approach: if you keep your mind in this fantasy world of where you want to go, it will motivate you to take the proper steps to get there.

What I heard recently is that, in fact, we should be visualizing ourselves taking the small steps that will lead the way to whatever that larger goal is. That we shouldn’t distract ourselves from the practical, concrete things we need to do by fantasizing about ourselves in some dream version of the future, which may or may not come to pass. This, of course, is just another self help nugget – and self help nuggets, as a rule, are not very helpful – but I think there is more truth to this idea than this visualizing yourself having reached the ultimate goal hooey.

This idea is essentially the same method as making small, attainable goals that will lead you in the direction of where you want to go – and feeling good about yourself when you reach each of those small goals. The big problem with the other method is that you can reach small goal after small goal and actually be doing quite well, but still be years away from reaching that ultimate goal that you’ve been dreaming about. The result is that you might feel discouraged, might feel like these small steps aren’t getting you anywhere, might just give up altogether.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had these elaborate fantasies of myself becoming rich and famous off of my writing. I would think about how great life would be one day, when I wouldn’t have to have another job outside of writing (and filmmaking, which was my other big dream at the time), and when I would have regular meetings with an agent and with editors. When I would have plenty of money to live comfortably and live well and, more importantly, make my living off of an activity that I enjoyed doing, anyway.

Here’s how it would go: I would sit down to write, be at it for maybe half an hour, give or take, and then I would start thinking about how good I believed this thing that I was writing was. How this was definitely going to get accepted somewhere. How this was going to set me on that path I had been desperately trying to find the entrance to: that fabled path to success. And then I would start thinking about what would happen next, and what would happen after that, and where it would all lead – that final image of myself as a successful professional writer.

I was one of the biggest writing clichés: the person who wants to have written rather than to write. I wanted to skip all those steps inbetween and just get to the point where I would wake up in the morning with nothing that I had to do but write. But of course, I had time to write; I was wasting it fantasizing about success. Those steps that I wanted to skip? Those were the steps where you actually, you know, write things.

I have this theory that most of us – maybe all of us – enter into that stage somewhere early on in our development as writers. We begin writing, of course, because we enjoy it, but once we start to realize that we’re kind of good at it, and that there are people out there who make a living off of being good at it, well that’s when the trouble begins. The important thing is that we move past that stage.

I’ve reached a point now where I pretty much just assume that I won’t ever get a book published by a major publisher, that I won’t ever make enough money to live off of writing. And the surprising thing is that this is actually a very freeing realization, because now my focus is on meeting these small goals I set for myself. Writing for X amount of time every day. Submitting to X number of journals each month. Getting the kinks worked out of Y story and better developing Z character. Now I actually feel like I’m sort of living the life I want to . . . right now. I don’t have to fantasize about a future that will probably never happen because the point is that I want to write, and as long as I squeeze time out of my days to do this, I would say I’m living the dream. I am a writer.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Real World and Other Nightmares

Perhaps it’s because I had a nightmare last night about work – one of those dreams where everything goes wrong and you lack the wisdom to deal with it the way you would in real life – but I’m feeling sort of cynical about life in the real world today.

This past week has been sort of a downer for me as a writer. I’ve had a phenomenally busy week – planning lessons, grading papers, getting things squared away with a new part time retail job I’ve taken to supplement my teaching income, and as always: errands, errands, errands. I haven’t written much this week, and what frustrates me is that it’s not because I’ve been sitting around watching TV or playing DS (my video game drug of choice). I haven’t written much this week because every second that I’m awake I have something else, something more pressing that I have to do.

I’ve talked before about how saying you don’t have time to write is something of a cop out. I do think this is true – after all, you could sleep for an hour less each night and spend that hour writing, if nothing else – but I also think there is something to be said for the lifestyle of a graduate creative writing student.

When I first started grad school I felt that my life suddenly revolved around teaching – and I wasn’t even sure at the time whether I wanted to be a teacher. I hated my new life, and I spent a lot of time ranting about how I had had a lot more time to write when I was working in an office than I did now that I was a creative writing MFA student. (This time I spent ranting, of course, could have been more wisely spent writing.)

After I got used to it, though, and especially after I got the hang of teaching, I found that I had waaaaaaaaay more time to write than I ever did out in the work world. When you work eight hours a day, yes, it’s possible to come home and write for an hour or two, but don’t forget you also have to make dinner, spend time with your spouse, run errands, and sleep. If you get home from work at five, and you should really try to be in bed by, say, ten so you can get a good eight hours before having to get up at six and get ready for work, you really don’t have a lot of time in which to carve an hour or two to write. And you can absolutely forget about the possibility of writing for three hours a day – which is always my ultimate goal.

As a graduate creative writing student your schedule is much more open. It’s stress, more than any real barriers, that keep you from writing. You teach one class (in most cases) and take two or three. Most of your homework is enjoyable – it is, after all, your field of interest – and even after doing all your homework and all the stuff you have to do to teach, after running all your errands and doing everything else you have to do to survive, you still have plenty of time leftover to write and write and write and write.

Not so, I’m learning, as a part time adjunct instructor and a part time retail sales girl. I haven’t even gotten into the thick of the retail job and I already can tell that finding an hour or two to write everyday is going to be a constant battle. Every single day I will have to search for time, figure out how I’ll do it this time, figure out what I need to sacrifice to squeeze it in.

But I know even as I write this that I will work it out. I’ll find some routine that works and I’ll get my writing time in. Maybe not as much as I would like – that three hour a day goal feels more unattainable than ever right now – but I’ll find some time. I’ll find enough to keep myself sane. And in the meantime, I’m thinking again about PhD programs. I’m scheming how I can get myself back into that cushy life where even though you don’t make a living off of writing, it’s just assumed that writing is important and that you simply must have time to do it. That writing is as essential as breathing, that it’s one of those basic functions that keeps us going, keeps us alive.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Editorial Feedback

So one of the non-MFA writers that MFA/MFYou has published mentioned that he doesn’t feel he’s missed out on anything by not getting a formal creative writing education – he gets essentially the same (or one could argue more valuable) feedback that you get in workshop from editors when he submits his work. This is very true. Although not all editors give feedback on rejected submissions, it’s not uncommon for editors to give personal feedback on the submissions that came really close to getting accepted or even that they liked enough to bother spending the extra few minutes writing a real rejection and not just sending out the form response.

This past week I got a rejection that caused me to go back and revise a story – and the story, I feel, has greatly improved as a result. What happened was that the editor gave me a reason for the rejection that happened to be the exact same reason that another editor had given me a few months ago. The problem that these editors pointed to had to do with the amount of exposition that fell at the beginning of the story. The first time an editor told me this, I recognized that this was true of the story but I felt that it was alright – that it was still well written and engaging and I shouldn’t feel the need to change it just because the current standard is that we don’t like it when stories have a lot of exposition.

But when the second editor cited the exposition as the reason for rejection, I decided I would be wise to go back and revisit the story with that concern in mind. I opened up a new document and wrote a new beginning, working to address the problem these editors had with the story, but I kept the thought in the back of my mind that if I didn’t like the end result, I would chuck the revision and keep the story as it was. But I did like the end result and I think that the story is immensely stronger now.

This is similar to the experience MFAers sometimes have in workshop. You might cringe at some of the workshop feedback, but when several people agree that something is a problem you’ve got to be kind of arrogant to not seriously consider their concerns. The difference here is that I think in some ways the feedback you receive from editors should carry more weight. If more than one editor – having no knowledge of what other editors have said – agree that something isn’t working in your piece, you’d be wise to really think hard about whether they might be right.

I had another editorial feedback episode yesterday, this time for a story that has been accepted for publication (from a market that is both paying and international – woo-hoo!). The editor sent me some feedback and would like me to revise the story and get it back to her in a week. Much of her feedback was similar to the margin notes you receive in workshop. Not the major stuff that gets discussed out loud in class – no, if there had been major problems I doubt that the story would have been accepted at all. This is the sentence level stuff that gets marked on the individual copies of a piece: this sentence is a bit awkward, this bit of dialogue seems out of character, this is perhaps a bit of a cliché. That sort of thing. And it’s all (with the exception of one sentence that I plan to talk to the editor about – see if I can convince her why this is okay) stuff that I agree wholeheartedly about.

I feel like my workshop experiences were at least partially preparing me for the feedback I would later receive from editors, but I also think that you could skip the workshop environment altogether and, as long as you’re a mature enough writer (and human being) to be able to listen open-mindedly to criticism, you’ll be able to improve using the editorial feedback that will inevitably come your way. You may not always like it, and you certainly won’t always agree with it, but you should be happy to get it whenever you can. None of us can do this entirely on our own.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Average Reading Levels and Other Forgotten Things

I’m teaching Technical Writing this fall and I came across an interesting bit of information that I can’t help but apply to creative writing. The textbook I’m teaching out of says that it is common for businesses to put out writing at a sixth to eighth grade reading level. The book cites a study that says that while 28% of Americans graduate from college (a very low number to begin with), only about 31% of college graduates can actually read at what we would consider a college graduate level. Simply put, if you’re writing very complex, highly intellectual prose, you’re writing for a very small audience.

While this is more important from a technical writing perspective than from an artistic perspective – you may decide that you don’t want to dumb your art down just so that you can reach more people with it – it still, I think, is worth thinking about. Consider what a higher reading ability your average master’s or doctorate level creative writer has compared with the average, everyday American reading public. Small presses are sometimes willing to put out the highly artistic, intellectual stuff even though it has a low chance of making them any real money, but most of the bigger publishers aren’t even going to consider your work if it can only be marketed to people with English graduate level educations.

And this in my opinion is one of the most legitimate arguments against getting an MFA. The feedback you receive at a graduate level workshop comes from graduate level writers and readers, people with advanced educations, reading abilities, and a stronger than average willingness to work hard to figure out what a text is getting at. They applaud the innovative and unique, the experimental and peculiar, and they deplore things that are easy to follow, straightforward and traditional, plot driven or with a deeper meaning that most readers in the class are able to figure out. In essence, they don’t like the stuff that is actually going to be accessible to a wider audience.

That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with writing for a small audience of like minded individuals. But I would argue that there’s nothing wrong, either, with taking audience into consideration and actually writing at a level that non-writers and non-scholars will appreciate, too. I’m not saying you should write at a sixth to eighth grade reading level – unless, of course, you’re writing books for sixth to eighth graders. The average American who actually reads for pleasure, I’m guessing, has a higher reading ability than the average American period. But I don’t think the average reading American is at a graduate reading level, either. In my writing, I’m interested in writing stories that are well crafted and complex enough that those scholars will consider it passable – though maybe not exceptional, not perfect by any means – and I don’t want to alienate the larger reading public in the process. I think there can be a middle ground.

I believe that a lot of graduate students aim for that higher ground and end up limiting their audience. Yeah, the few people who read their stuff might consider them brilliant. But they will never have more than a few people willing to read their stuff. This, I suspect, is where a lot of the negative MFA sentiment comes from. I don’t even know how many submission guidelines I’ve read that specify that they are not interested in the writing getting pumped out of MFA programs. I think it’s true that MFA writing sometimes seems pretentious and it’s true that a lot of it is not actually enjoyable – you read it because it’s doing interesting things, not because it’s actually entertaining.

I also don’t think that getting that MFA automatically means you will become one of those writers. You can – and should! – pick and choose which of the feedback is actually going to bring your writing to the point you would like it to be, and this is true whether you’re in a graduate workshop or a writer’s group out in the real world. But there’s a lot to be said for studying the books that actually sell instead of only the books that are considered artistically interesting, and of getting feedback from other writers who are trying to write for a wider audience than from writers who value the strange and the difficult above all else.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Network

Some funny little coincidences have happened lately that remind me how small a world we writers live in. At a get-together for the new graduate students in Damien’s program a few days ago I chatted with a girl who told me about a poet friend of hers. She mentioned a few specific details that I very quickly connected with a poet we had published here at MFA/MFYou. I asked her what the name of this poet friend of hers is and sure enough, it’s one of our fabulous MFA/MFYou contributors.

But wait, there’s more:

Last night Damien was chatting on Facebook with a PhD fiction writer in his program. She told him that his profile picture is in an online photo album that a cousin of hers is in. That’s odd, Damien thought, because the only photo album she could possibly be talking about is one created by one of my old professors from my MFA program. Damien prodded her for more details and sure enough, her cousin studied creative writing at a college that my old professor used to teach at before he came to UAF.

Small world.

I noticed recently that a poetry professor at my old MFA program is Facebook friends with a nonfiction professor at Damien’s current program. A while ago I had a friend recommend a book to me and then another writer friend mentioned casually that he knows the guy that wrote it – they were on a panel discussion together at a conference some time ago. I was looking up agents the other day to find possible people to query about my novel and I stumbled across an agent page flashing an image of my UAF mentor’s most recent book

The thing is, the world of writing really is that small. When I was younger I used to fantasize about being part of an entourage of writers. You always hear about this big writer who is friends with that big writer; you always notice writers thanking each other in their acknowledgement pages.

Through my MFA program, and through Damien’s MA program, we’ve met numerous successful writers, some reasonably famous writers even, and many more that are on their way up. We’ve begun to become part of that very small world where you know people that could possibly introduce you to someone who could possibly publish your next book, or help you promote your current one, or even just give you invaluable feedback on your work. This networking idea seems overwhelming at times but it really is important. And it’s really not as difficult as you might think to break into that great big little network of writers.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Momentum Revisited

I’ve talked about momentum before and I’ll probably talk about it again but I’m going to talk about it today, too, because it is, in my opinion, the most important ingredient for success in writing – and most anything else you could ever do. After having spent the past couple of months focusing mostly on scholarly writing, moving, and finding a new job, this month I’ve been focusing on trying to get my momentum back up as a creative writer.

I liken my experience this week to the episode of The Simpsons when Homer decides he wants to be an inventor like Thomas Edison. Homer quits his job and clears his schedule and sets up an office for himself in the basement. He writes “Inventions” at the top of a notepad and then sits there tapping his pencil against the pad, waiting for the brilliant ideas to come flooding in. And of course, they don’t.

You can set aside a block of time, you can arrange an office for yourself or set up your computer just so, you can put your cat outside and send your husband or wife to the store, you can tell yourself “today I am going to write that story/poem/essay I’ve been wanting to write about bla bla bla,” and still, still, you find yourself sitting there in front of a blank computer screen, feeling despondent.

I know this seems in contradiction to what I always say about how it isn’t an acceptable excuse to say you don’t have time to write – the time is there you just have to decide to spend it writing. It’s true that I’m a big proponent for knocking out the excuses and just writing; I don’t believe you should call yourself a writer if you don’t write and write often. But I do admit that there’s more to it than just deciding that you’re going to spend the next hour writing. And that more, I believe, comes down to momentum.

I used to spend an average of about two hours a day writing, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less, and it never felt the way it feels right now when I sit down to log in my time – like I’m forcing it. But the thing is, I’ve lost my momentum and until I get that momentum back up I’m probably going to feel like Homer tapping his “Inventions” notepad and waiting for the ideas to come. But if I don’t stick with it, if I don’t keep sitting down to write everyday for at least an hour, I’ll never get the momentum back.

Already I can feel it getting easier. Two mornings ago I woke up with a break through about a story I was working on – third person! I need to change the perspective from first to third! – and I rushed downstairs to get cracking on it. Yesterday I suddenly had a flash about something I should add to my novel and even though my husband was home, The Simpsons was blasting from our living room TV, and it wasn’t time I had specifically set aside to write, I turned on my computer and excitedly worked the new idea into the novel.

I’ll be teaching this fall and the quarter begins in two weeks. I fully expect that as long as I keep sitting down to write everyday by the time school begins and my schedule gets busy again, my momentum will be going strong as a creative writer and I will be able to comfortably juggle both teaching and writing. It would be easy to give up, to tell myself “well, you just can’t force it” or “I’m just not inspired right now” and do something else instead, but I think it’s important to stick to it until you’ve trained your mind into lingering in that writer mode. Then, and only then, will I feel like a real “writer” again.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Group Motivation

My first semester as an MFA student was extremely difficult. I’ve touched on this before, I know, but I’m thinking about it more and more lately with my husband and some of his colleagues getting ready to begin their first quarter in their creative writing program. Around here anxiety is high, as you can imagine, and so is hope.

There were a number of reasons why that first semester was so hard for me, and a lot of it had to with that obnoxious artist’s ego that had to be completely broken down and smashed into as many tiny pieces as possible to be sure it couldn’t put itself back together. But one of the problems with going through that very necessary ego check is that you don’t feel very motivated to keep at it when you feel like a lousy writer, or when you realize that there are too many writers out there to count just as good as – or better than – you.

I hardly wrote at all my first semester in grad school, and the few things that I did write I wrote because I had a workshop deadline. I think this is actually quite common at the beginning of a program – and many creative writing students never break out of this funk. They spend their entire three (or two, if you’re an MA student) years only writing when they have to, only when it’s homework, and then they stop writing altogether after they graduate.

If I could go back and do it all over again, I think the key would have been to use that automatic community of writers that I got to be a part of to my (and their) advantage. This past week Damien and I had a little writing party at our house. We invited some people we’ve met so far from Damien’s program and then we did two half our writing sessions, each starting with a separate prompt. In between sessions we ate, drank, and were merry, as they say. It was very successful – a lot of fun and it got us all writing. At the end of the party everybody agreed that we should make a regular thing of it, that even when school is in session something like this would be a great way to keep everybody motivated and generating new ideas.

And all it took was for someone to organize it. Why not you? I have a theory that most people in creative writing programs desperately want to do things like this, but they often feel overwhelmed by school and teaching and everything and so don’t think to start a group themselves. That or they feel like it should be a given in a creative writing program that everybody is motivated to write just by workshop alone, or by knowledge that their thesis will eventually be due, and so they don’t think they need a writing group outside of school. But I think the professors in these programs are just assuming that students are meeting outside of school to write and workshop each others stuff. That the people in charge take it as a given that the program, alone, is not enough.

This sort of group can operate outside of a creative writing program, too. All you need is to find some fellow writers willing to do what they claim they enjoy doing – to write. While this is of course easier in a creative writing program because pretty much everybody that you know is a writer, it’s certainly not impossible in the “real world.” There are writing groups on the internet if you don’t know any other writers personally and you could easily set up a community writing group – just ask your local library and bookstores if you can put flyers up on their bulletin boards and windows. But I think the important thing is that if there isn’t something in place for you to join, you should take the initiative to start it yourself.

Writing is not an automatic function, like breathing, as much as we sometimes pretend that it is. Most serious writers engage themselves in writing communities to keep in practice and keep motivated. Maybe once you’ve got a publishing house that provides you with an editor you’ll be okay on your own, but until then you’re responsible for building or joining your own community. And trust me, it will be worth it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

To MA or to MFA, That Is the Question

Something I’m sure we’ll be talking a lot about for the next while is the difference between an MA program in creative writing and an MFA program. What’s the difference between these degrees? Why is one a terminal degree and the other more of a gateway to a PhD? And how does a person choose between the two?

Let’s compare the requirements of Damien’s MA program to my MFA program. They’re pretty similar. While my program lasted three years, all the course requirements could be filled in less than that. Really, the extra year is to give you time to work on your thesis. Both programs require lit courses, workshops, and theory, and both require a creative thesis. And it’s the thesis, I think, that’s the key.

In my MFA program the thesis had to be a book length, publishable work. In Damien’s program, the thesis is much shorter – it does not have to be long enough to be a real book – but it must include a critical introduction. So maybe that pinpoints the difference between the two programs. The MFA is more of an artistic degree – the thesis is an actual book that you can then polish up and try to get published. It’s preparing you first and foremost for a career as a writer. The MA is more of an academic degree with a bit more of a focus on criticism, and it prepares you primarily for a career as a professor.

But the interesting thing is that both degrees prepare you for both fields. They would have to, wouldn’t they? Because you can’t really make a living off of writing, but at the same time if you’re getting a degree in creative writing it’s because you want to write. In my MFA program I always felt like they didn’t prepare us enough for careers in the academic field – giving information about conferences, for example, and how to get scholarly essays published, what a career as a teacher entails (besides teaching) and how to get your foot in the door, all of which it looks like will be covered in Damien’s MA program.

But I suspect if I had gone through an MA program I would have felt there wasn’t enough preparation for a career as a writer (having to write a book length work for your thesis seems to me a huge difference from being allowed to turn in a few short stories, essays, or poems. If you’re doing a complete book the process in many ways mirrors the process of working with an editor to get a book published. The MA thesis to me is more reminiscent of a portfolio you might hand in at the end of a single creative writing class).

So I suppose there is a difference, but it’s slight enough that maybe the real question shouldn’t be do you want an MA or an MFA but which individual programs are going to be the best fit for you? Which programs have the instructors whose work you respect and who you would like to work under? Which programs allow you to teach creative writing and which only allow you to teach composition? Which programs have the better track records of people finishing and getting good jobs, and finishing and getting books published? Which programs have you heard good things about? Which programs did your favorite writers graduate from?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Value of the Degree

After a month and a half long break, MFA/MFYou has set up shop in beautiful Athens, Ohio. For those of you who have been waiting for what may feel like centuries for a response on a submission, we have every intention of getting through the backlog and sending out some responses soon. In the meantime, our newsletter is back on schedule.

I wanted to talk this week about the value of the MFA degree itself. It’s something I’ve often derided, feeling that the experience is valuable in that it helps you become a better creative writer, but the degree itself is essentially worthless in any real world applications because the only thing it qualifies you to do is teach, which not all creative writers are interested in doing. And even if you do want to teach, like I do, you may need to publish at least one book before you’re a real contender for a tenure-track full time position.

But all of that was speculation based on my understanding of the degree’s value and the experiences of other people that I know who graduated and then had a difficult time finding any kind of full time employment. Now that I’m no longer an MFA candidate but actually a holder of an MFA degree, and I am, for the first time, looking for a job as an MFA, I’m revising my opinion regarding the worth of this degree.

Before I moved to Ohio I sent out my CV and cover letter to four different community colleges in the area. I had low hopes for finding anything because I didn’t know whether they would consider my experience as a TA sufficient, but I figured it was worth a shot. I requested to be considered for adjunct work, if any was available at any of these schools. Three of the four schools responded to me while I was on the road. Two of those schools offered me two courses each as adjunct, and one of the schools is actually considering me for a full time position. Before I got into town, I already had a job interview scheduled for the full time position and was in touch with the department chairs from two other schools about possibly teaching adjunct if I don’t get the full time position.

I’m comparing this with other people’s experiences right now, trying to find work in these hard times. Even though I read on the MLA website that the average adjunct English instructor salary comes to about $11/hour (shamefully low!), it’s actually not a bad position to be in – being qualified for a specific career. One of the department chairs I was speaking with told me that it’s very difficult to find qualified English instructors and I’ve heard that with the economy in the slumps more and more colleges are turning to adjunct faculty to level out their budgets. Not a very well paying job, no, but a job that’s in high demand.

In addition to that, my fear that finding full time work would be impossible at this stage is proving unfounded. I made it all the way to the final interview stage for this full time position, and while I may not get the job (I probably won’t know for another week), it’s important to remember that I wouldn’t have even been considered for it without my master’s degree.

I think part of the MFA-is-worthless attitude comes from wrong expectations that graduate students sometimes have regarding their career path. I think a lot of people in grad school want to move directly into cushy, full time positions as creative writing faculty after they earn their degree but, like in any field, you have to start at entry level and work your way up.

I enjoy teaching composition and I enjoy teaching early level lit courses. Creative writing is fun to teach, too, but in my experience, composition is the most rewarding because of its more diverse range of students and the more vital nature of the material being taught. An MFA degree does qualify you to teach comp at a community college – it qualifies you to teach full time if you can find an open position. It’s true that if you want to teach in a graduate program or if you want to teach in a creative writing program specifically, you’ll probably have to get a book published first, but if you really like teaching there are plenty of other options out there that an MFA will open the doors to.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Question of the PhD

This will be the last entry of the MFA/MFYou Newletter until August. We’re making the quite epic move from Fairbanks, Alaska to Athens, Ohio, with a lot of extended pit stops along the way, and surely won’t have the time (or the desire) to keep up with weekly entries during the month of July.

This week I want to talk about something that for some reason has been coming up a lot in conversations I’ve had with various professors in the program lately: the creative writing PhD. I haven’t completely decided how I feel about this at the moment so I’m going to give a bit of what I’ve heard other people say to start us off.

I heard a literature professor recently talking about her frustration that the creative writing PhD undermines the value of a literature PhD. She feels that since a literature PhD is a highly advanced degree involving extensive amounts of research and effort, a creative dissertation doesn’t come close to comparing with the work you do for a lit PhD and so the two degrees are uneven, though they have the same title. As a result, the mere existence of the creative writing PhD devalues the lit PhD, which so many people spend years and years slaving to earn.

The topic came up again at dinner last night when a creative writing professor mentioned that she feels the creative writing PhD devalues the MFA. An MFA in creative writing is a terminal degree; it’s meant to be as high as you need to go to be able to enter the field. If it’s possible to go “further,” that is, if you can also get a PhD, it would seem that an MFA may get to a point where it’s no longer terminal. She said that some MFA programs will not hire faculty members with PhDs in creative writing to avoid undermining the degree that they confer in their program.

Having just earned an MFA I can say that, after studying for and taking an extensive comprehensive exam, after taking three years of coursework, and after writing and defending a complete novel for my thesis, I do feel that a PhD in creative writing would be redundant. Especially now that I’m aware there’s such a controversy over it, I don’t know that it’s a good idea to pursue a further creative writing degree. It would especially be frustrating to get a PhD in creative writing and, as a result, find yourself barred from teaching at a number of MFA programs and holding a degree that offends people.

But what if you want to become a better literary scholar and researcher, and are interested in expanding your credentials as a teacher? And if a PhD in creative writing is slowly devaluing the MFA, what will you do if, in ten years, say, the MFA is no longer considered a terminal degree? Will explaining that you chose not to get a PhD in creative writing for ideological reasons help you get a job? And while there may be MFA programs who don’t want to hire people with PhDs, isn’t it possible that some PhD programs feel that hiring a professor with an MFA would be like hiring someone with a BA to teach in a Masters program?

It’s a complicated issue and right now I just don’t know where to stand on it. For me, I think I might try to get a PhD in literature down the road so that I have the more advanced degree, but not the one that can be seen as devaluing my MFA. I’m also curious to talk to the faculty at Ohio University, where my husband Damien will be starting as a creative writing MA student in the fall, because OU confers PhDs in creative writing and so they likely come at the issue from another perspective. It will also be interesting to compare Damien’s experiences as an MA student – an MA being a non-terminal degree – with mine earning a terminal MFA degree. We will definitely be revisiting this issue in the future.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


I’ve heard a lot of talk about how there is perhaps more inspiration for writing material outside of an MFA program, in that fabled “real world” everyone talks about. I imagine this is probably true, and in fact as I’m preparing to move to Ohio in a few weeks I’m going back and forth with what would be better for me: finding a good teaching job at one of the many community colleges in the area, or getting a regular job and stepping away from the very different world of academia for a while.

But I do think there is a lot of inspiration to be had in an MFA program, and for me a lot of that inspiration came from reading the work of my peers and instructors. All the other students in my program at UAF were absolutely amazing writers and most of them had very distinct styles from each other and from me. I think one of the most useful things you can do as a writer is expose yourself to a wide range of writing and experiment around with some of the things you see other people doing. This is different from just reading a lot, since in an MFA program you can then actually talk to and get feedback from the very people that inspired you.

In my program there were two people in particular whose work I was just blown away by and who as a result really inspired me to push myself to step out of my comfort zone and see what would happen if I tried this or that. (That’s not to say that I was only blown away by the work of two people; there were many people in the program whose writing really impressed me. But there are two in particular who really inspired me to experiment around with some of the things they were doing).

One was a fellow student, who is in my opinion the best writer in the program (or at least whose writing is my personal favorite) and who has this incredible ability to meld fantasy-type genre stories with absolutely amazingly well crafted, literary writing. The first workshop I had with her she submitted a story that everybody just fell in love with, myself included. It had a touch of magic and fairy tale-like fantasy but also very strong character and voice, and I was super inspired to try to experiment around with magic realism in my own writing – which has been very fun and I think has helped me move to the next level as a writer.

The other is an instructor in the program, award winning writer David Crouse, who in the very last workshop I took at UAF actually submitted his own work to be workshopped alongside the students. Not only was it super cool to get to workshop such a successful writer’s work at the same time as our own work, but I felt really inspired to push myself to be less, well, obvious in my writing. I’m well aware that my number one problem as a writer is that I’m often heavy handed and come right out and say things that it would be better to let the reader put together for him or herself, and when I saw how much it can work to, as he says, “withhold” more, I made an effort to try to work more on that in my work.

This is a different sort of inspiration, yes, than what people talk about when they say there is more inspiration in the real world than in an academic program. But it’s inspiration nonetheless and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Many Ways to Learn

Yesterday my husband Damien and I went to a panel discussion at the Alaska Book Festival. This Festival is still very new (this was the third annual) and it’s still finding its feet, so the variety of events is disappointing. Even so, every year since the first I’ve gone to at least one event and found it interesting and useful.

Yesterday’s panel discussion was perhaps the most intriguing yet. They had a nice range of panelists: a published writer, a self-published writer, an editor for a small publishing house, and a book reviewer for the local newspaper. The topic was publishing and marketing and with such a range of perspectives we learned about really the whole process, from how to make yourself stand out to get that book deal to begin with to how to market your book once it’s out there.

This is the sort of practical information that we all need to know if we want to move beyond writing stuff that we deem brilliant and then stow away in our desk drawer forever and actually writing stuff that is actually going to be read. I left the panel discussion with a page and a half of notes that I will probably revisit over and over again from now on.

Another quick anecdote and then you’ll see (I hope) where this is going: when I was an undergrad, I took a class on Latin American Women’s Lit (we read some really cool stuff in that class, by the way). One day during class the teacher stopped in the middle of a lecture and frowned at us. She wanted to know why none of us were taking notes on what she was talking about. Somebody pointed out that there are no tests in the class, just essays, so why would we need to take notes? The teacher was enraged. She said that when she graduated from college she had boxes and boxes of notes, which she’d hung on to ever since and had gone back and reviewed numerous times. Were we really just concerned with whether or not we would be tested over the information? Didn’t we want to actually learn this stuff?

As you can imagine, all of the students in the class (my young bratty self included) thought she was being absurd. You actually think we’re going to keep our college notes forever? We burn them in a primal celebration at the end of each semester. We do what it takes to get whatever grade we want and once we get that grade we move on.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my many years of student and then teacherhood, it’s that most people aren’t really interested in learning the things that you’re forcing them to learn (or that they feel they’re being forced to learn). But let someone go out and pursue knowledge on their own and they’ll take notes, they’ll listen closely and they’ll even look up the information later.

When I was a grad student, I was appalled by how many of the students would not do the assigned reading, and hardly anyone ever took notes during class. I’m serious! These are people who were working themselves as English teachers, who had Bachelor’s Degrees in English, and who theoretically had made a decision to really commit their lives to Literature, either as writers or scholars, and yet many of them still totally slacked off at school (and I have to admit, I slacked off sometimes too). But I’ve noticed that at Book Festival events or that sort of thing, most of the people take notes, many of them ask questions during the Q and A after, and pretty much all of them seem excited to learn what the people on stage have to teach.

The variables are so different when you’re seeking out knowledge on your own versus learning it in a formal academic program. Still, I think either way it comes down to whether or not you're willing to put the effort in. One thing that I think it’s always useful to remember, though, is that the knowledge is out there. There are writer’s groups. There are conferences. There are Book Festivals and readings and all manner of other literary and writer’s events (many of which are free!). It seems that ultimately whether you grow to the point of being able to reach success has much more to do with your own will to actually do it than whether you were accepted into or joined an MFA program.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

On Shyness and Being Socially Awkward

You always hear about MFA programs as first and probably foremost providing you with a community of writers. It’s the promise of that community, of at last finding ourselves part of a group of people that we actually have things in common with and can talk to about literature and about writing (and about music and comic books and independent films and . . .) that lures so many of us to these programs to begin with.

As for me, I’m extremely reserved, socially awkward, and I just don’t feel comfortable at parties or in large groups of people. I’m fine one-on-one, or in very small gatherings, but put me in a situation where there’s a ton of people there and I can’t help but fade into the background and stop talking altogether. Well it turns out that the way people get to know each other in this sort of community environment is by having large parties. Of course. How else can an incoming group of new students and a massive group of current and past students get to know each other but to just mingle together and, well, talk.

This was very difficult for me, and when I first got here and started hearing about a party at this stranger’s house and a party at that stranger’s cabin, I opted out. I knew, even at the time, that I should go to these parties to get to know the other people in the program, but knowing that you should do something and actually doing it are two very different things. Plus I had the comfort of having family in town so I didn’t feel this pressing urgency to make friends.

So as you can imagine, I didn’t get to know the other students the way they got to know each other, and once everybody developed relationships with each other they stopped having large parties that everyone was invited to and started hanging out in smaller – or sometimes still large – gatherings, to which they only invited the people with whom they had become friends. Obviously. And I wasn’t one of those people.

It wasn’t until my very last year in the program that I started forcing myself to come out of my shell and get to know people in the program, and once I did I was horrified that I had waited so long. I have met some of the coolest, funniest, most intelligent, most any-other-positive-word-you-can-think-of people in the program here and it makes me sad to think I could have been hanging out and developing close friendships with them from the start.

But something that I’ve come to realize in this past year as I have gotten to know people is that most of the people in the program see themselves as socially awkward and most everybody in the program is at least a little bit shy. I think the stereotype is true: writer’s are generally of an introverted nature. If I had realized that from the start . . .

It’s way less scary, I think, to push yourself to get to know people if you know that it’s scary for them, too. But making the effort is well worth the reward, because while yes there will be people in an MFA program, just like everywhere else in the world, that you just don’t click with, there’s a good chance that there will be more people that you really will. If you’re shy and afraid to say the wrong thing (or not sure if anybody will be interested in anything you have to say, which is how I usually feel) just remind yourself that most of them probably feel the exact same way. Just like everything else in life, you get out what you put in. That community doesn’t build itself.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

MFA/MFYou Issue Two

Hot off the presses . . . or, freshly uploaded from my computer to yours anyway: Issue Two of MFA/MFYou. I'm excited about the excellent fiction and poetry we were able to put out in this issue, thanks to the hard work and good writing sense of our fabulous MFA/MFYou contributors. Check it out, you won't be disappointed. And if you still haven't had a chance to read Issue One, don't worry. You can find it in our brand new MFA/MFYou Archives.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


I love to talk to other people about literature and about writing. The only thing I love more than talking about it is actually doing it: reading and writing. But the truth is, talking about it is a close second. One of the things I was really looking forward to in joining an MFA program was that I would become part of a community of readers and writers who, I assumed, would all be way into to talking about it, too.

But this is one of my MFA expectations that didn’t quite get fulfilled, at least, not as completely as I would have wanted. What I found when I got into the program was that a lot of people, when I would ask them questions about the books we were reading for classes or the comps exam, or what they were working on as writers, were so burnt out on the subject from school that they didn’t want to talk about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making broad generalizations and this was not true of every single person in the program. Most of the people who I ended up liking the most were the ones who were as interested and excited about talking about literature and writing as I was, so maybe what it really comes down to is that some people just like talking about it and others don’t.

But I have another theory that might also be a little bit (or a lot?) true. I think when something that you love makes that shift (you know, the one that so many of us dream about?) from being your hobby to your occupation – either because it’s your job now or because it’s the focus of your academic studies – sometimes you start looking at it the way you look at, well, work.

Suddenly getting into elaborate discussions about a book you’ve read might not be that fun, since you were forced to spend three hours engaging in such a conversation in class and you associate the idea with school, which you do not want to think about right now. And the same with writing. A fellow student asks you what you’ve been working on lately and you feel like you’re being interrogated. “I don’t know. Just a story.” And that’s all you feel like saying because last night in workshop the other students spent an hour ripping your story apart and you’re sort of embarrassed and dejected and you just want to talk about anything but writing. Add to that the fact that if you become a career academic you’ll probably be writing intricate papers – or books – that go into a lot of detail as you argue your reading of a particular text or texts. Your way of having a discussion about literature becomes reading other people’s arguments about the text and then writing your own. A fun and valid way of doing it, sure, but can it really replace having an actual back and forth conversation about a book?

I don’t know why this didn’t happen to me. I always left class wishing it wasn’t over yet because there was more, still, to say about this or that book. And I wanted to know what other books my peers were reading, and what they thought of those books, and how much time they wrote every week, and whether or not they were submitting, and . . . and . . . and . . . Like I said, I eventually found some really awesome people who will sit and gab for hours about this stuff, but I can’t help but wonder if a better place to find people to talk to about these things might not actually be out in the real world.

I’ve been thinking about all the famous writers throughout history who were members of groups of people with whom they shared work, as well as talked about reading and writing. I could give some specific examples but I won’t bother – we’ve all read about writers who developed tightly knit and close friendships with other readers and writers, or who were part of literary or writers groups. It seems to me like one of the things that many – dare I say most? – successful writers have in common is that they had other people in their lives who not only gave feedback on their work but who connected with them in lengthy conversations about literature, philosophy, art, and the craft and business of writing.

Some of these groups, I’m sure, were formed with fellow academics, people the writers met as students or teachers, but many of them weren’t. If that’s the only reason you’re interested in grad school, consider that it’s quite possible that you’ll be able to form that sort of group on your own – and you may be better off doing so, since those people won’t have made the sometimes fatal mistake of turning reading and writing from their passion into their work. But however you do it, I hope that you do it. Maybe I’m biased because I enjoy it so much, but I feel that talking about reading and writing with others is an essential part of being a writer. It motivates you; it helps you look at things from other perspectives; it gets you thinking about new things that you hadn’t thought of on your own. We are each just one person, and we need other people to broaden our views. It’s as simple as that.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Oh that’s SO Cliché!

One thing I noticed a fair amount of when I was teaching Creative Writing last semester was the tendency students had to refer to each others work as “cliché” or “stereotypical” or “unoriginal.” It’s something I remember experiencing for the first time when I took my first graduate level workshop – being cliché wasn’t something I had ever been accused of as an undergrad, for some reason, but my first semester in grad school I grew to loath the word cliché. Oh they tried to say it nicely, mind you. Things like, “This is funny in a totally clichéd way – I assume that’s what you’re going for, right?” or, “Your narrator seems like sort of an idiot because he speaks and behaves in a totally clichéd manner – is that intentional?”

I’m not going to bitch and moan about how much it hurts to be told that your writing is clichéd (a lot) or how it hurts even more to realize that (GASP!) the things your peers are telling you are true. I look back on my first graduate level workshop as one of the most painful but also most useful experiences I have ever had in my life, and while some of those comments still sting a little bit (they remind me, you know, how little actual talent I have because any ability that I do have has come from a whole lot of hard work) I feel I have improved drastically because of them.

But what I want to talk about here is my experience looking at it from the other side this past semester, as a teacher. I did have one incident during the semester where one student’s feedback was so over-the-top cruel (saying that the entire story was just one giant cliché and that it could not possibly be revised and should be thrown away altogether) but overall most of the students were trying to be constructive when they repeatedly accused each other of being cliché, and in fact, most of them were essentially right (of course, I still encouraged students to come up with more constructive feedback than “this is so cliché”).

Though a majority of the writing coming from that class showed promise (and some of it I believe will be publishable if the student keeps working on it), I would also say, if looking at it from an objective manner, most of the stories that were written for that class contained elements that were not particularly original. While some of the stories were certainly less original than others, it did seem to be true that most of the students were inadvertently falling back on ideas that most of us (who are perhaps more well read than a class full of undergraduate Intro to Creative Writing students) would say we’ve seen a thousand times before.

But here’s the trick. In general, the reason why things become cliché is because they’re effective. This is true on the sentence level (how many cliché metaphors and similes can you think of that would just shock you with their beauty and truth if it wasn’t for the fact that it was a cliché?) and it’s true on the larger scale, too. Characters often have this or that personality trait because it successfully tells you something important about them. We’ve seen this or that plot twist so many times because it works. See? Most clichés becomes cliché because, in truth, they’re excellent examples of writing.

What’s that you say? But a good writer comes up with his or her own good writing? Here’s the thing: I’ve come to realize that, at the early stage of writing, many excellent writers use clichés not because they’re not good enough to come up with something for themselves, but because they haven’t read widely enough yet to know that this is a cliché. It may well be (and I think often is) an idea that the writer came up with on his or her own, it just happens to also be an idea that tons of other people came up with too.

This is part of the reason why I think reading A LOT is essential to success as a writer. You have got to develop a broad knowledge base of what’s been done already and what hasn’t. Of course, there are a number of other good reasons why you should read a lot, but this is one that I think gets forgotten sometimes. And the other important thing I’ve taken away from this is the belief that writing really clichéd stuff early on – when you’re still learning how to write – does not necessarily preclude you from developing into a very good writer. It may well even be a sign of developing ability – you’ve figured out this thing that works, you just don’t have enough knowledge in your field yet to know that somebody else figured it out before you.

So write your clichés if you must. Eventually you’ll have to move past them if you want to be considered good by anyone but your mom, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that all writers who write in clichés are inherently bad. Maybe all it really means is that they still have a lot left to learn, and really, don’t we all?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Overwhelmed by Workshop Suggestions

I got an interesting rejection this week. It was for a story I had submitted to workshop a few semesters ago. This story had been a totally different sort of writing from what I usually do and so, when I had it workshopped, I was really sort of insecure about what to do with it, not even sure what I wanted it to be. The truth is, I was probably a little overzealous in my revision to accept every bit of advice that was given to me whether it was really the right choice or not. But at any rate, I revised the story taking WAY more of the class’s suggestions than I normally would and started sending it out when I felt like it was ready.

The editor who rejected the story gave me some extremely useful specifics on why he was rejecting it. He said he thought it was a great idea, but X, Y, and Z were holding it back. Every single thing he pointed out were things I had changed about the story to follow workshop feedback. The interesting thing about it is that I realized, as I thought about his suggestions and compared them with the original workshop suggestions, that in many ways I feel that both sets of feedback were right. But how can that be?

I read somewhere recently that suggestions that are given in a workshop should rarely be taken – they should only be used as a sign for something that might be wrong with the piece at the moment. Once you figure out what’s fueling the suggestion, you should, most of the time, ignore the suggestion itself and come up with something on your own to fix whatever problem lies at the heart of the suggestion.

My problem was that, not feeling very confident about the story to begin with, and especially since it was a totally different sort of writing from what I normally do, most of the suggestions that were given to me during workshop sounded like great ideas. So I decided to take many of them. But once they had actually become part of the piece, they created a whole new set of problems that I hadn’t noticed until this editor pointed them out to me.

This is one of the dangers of workshop. I can’t even remember all the times I’ve been given feedback that sounded great while I sat in the classroom feverishly taking notes, and then when I went to actually make the changes I realized that they would never work – they didn’t fit with what I was trying to do or they created new, much larger problems or . . .

My problem this time was really a complete lack of self confidence in my own abilities to, well, write the story for myself. Workshop is great, don’t get me wrong, but getting feedback can become almost like a crutch sometimes and if you’re not feeling very sure of a particular piece it can do more harm than good to have a large group of people, many of whom are probably not picking up on your intentions as the writer, give you suggestions on how to make it more like something they would have written.

So it’s important to remember that your workshop did not write the piece, you did, and only you can make the final decisions of what to do next. It’s difficult, I think, but extremely important to find the right balance between having the confidence to veto suggestions that are wrong for this particular piece and yet the wisdom to recognize when there are problems with the piece and when feedback should be taken.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Finish Line

Well I’ve officially finished my MFA program. This past week was finals week and I turned my stuff in for the workshop I was taking and posted my grades for the class I was teaching and now I’m left with the peculiar feeling of having done everything I was supposed to do and yet knowing, still, that there’s so much more left to do.

I’ve heard people speak of the anticlimactic feeling of finishing but I would say that, although it doesn’t feel as monumental as I might have imagined three years ago, finishing does feel climactic to me. I’ve been thinking a lot the past few weeks about how sheltered I’ve been in the program and how nice it is to be part of such a sheltered community of writers. Finishing, then, really does feel like the end of an era, the final chapter of a book.

It’s scary to think about going out into “the real world,” scary to think about (probably) getting a regular job, outside of academia, where my life will no longer revolve around sharing work and talking about writing with fellow writers. I’ve made some writer friends here, and hopefully I’ll make writer friends where we’re headed, too, so that I’ll always have people with whom to share work and talk about craft. But that stuff will be pushed off into the background, now, just like writing itself will have to be. Because first you have to worry about survival – feeding your family and paying your bills.

It sort of feels like moving out of your parents house that first time. All your life they’ve clothed you, fed you, put a roof over your head, fostered your development, (hopefully) encouraged you to become what you want to become, and now they’re stepping out of the picture. For better or worse, you’re on your own. And now you have to take over the responsibilities of taking care of yourself, something you didn’t realize was such a task when somebody else was doing it for you.

But even though it’s scary, even though it feels like I’ve reached the end of a book I very much enjoyed, the light shimmering around the clouds is that I get to pick right up with a new book, and who’s to say it won’t be just as good? Who’s to say it won’t be better? Just like moving out on your own the first time, leaving an MFA program is also exciting – it feels like the start of a new adventure. Now I can put all that stuff I learned and practiced in the program to use. Now I can put myself to the test, see if I really have what it takes.

And as scared as I am right now, I still say: BRING IT!