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.


PancakePhilosopher said...

I totally know what you mean. Even my favorite writing professor here keeps telling me and his other students, if we don't have a 2nd major or different minor, to at least take up different interests or hobbies for this same reason: we need something to write about.

What's really challenging for me in writing my current big project is that some of the characters are in professions I know next to nothing about. One man is a soldier, one woman is a lawyer: they are the toughest. I'm having to research stuff about military ranks and regulations and the ins and outs of legal terms just to make these characters believable.

But that's not to say that being in a writing program doesn't also give us some other stuff to write about. I mean look at the UAF program: simply by living in Alaska, you've got some experiences that are totally alien to many Americans, if nothing else than the epic journeys required to move there and away again. I think it's easy to think of the stuff we know as pedestrian and boring, but what we know may not be what other people know, which is why I'm trying to not be so hostile to the old "write what you know" maxim.

Speaking of Alaska, when you lived there, did you ever have any time to sight-see or do anything recreational? If I get to go there, I'd love to have at least a little time during a break of some sort to go see the Gates of the Arctic or the Iditarod...I know that Master's programs require tons of focus and time, but still, just wondering.

Ashley Cowger said...

That's very true. I definitely got a lot of good writing material from living in Alaska and from teaching, too, because college students consist of a diverse range of interesting people.

I unfortunately didn't get to explore Alaska much while I was there, but time wasn't the issue; the issue for me was money. I went to Denali a few times, because it's EXTREMELY close so how could you not?, but other than that I didn't see much. My husband and I are both real pennypinchers, and in this case I do really regret that. I think it would have been worth it. If you end up going, I recommend traveling around and seeing as much as you can.

Ashley Cowger said...

Although I will add that you do get to see a lot of cool things just knocking around Fairbanks. We did get to see a lot of dog sled races and ice art festivals and other badass Alaskan things just by keeping an eye on what was going on in the Fairbanks community and going to as much of that stuff as we could.

PancakePhilosopher said...

Cool! Yeah I've looked at the Fairbanks website a bit, and there is a lot more going on there than I thought at first! If I go I'll definitely keep my eyes open for stuff around town. Money will be an issue for me, too, I believe...I've never had much luck holding onto it. I know wherever I end up I'll need to practice saving more, especially for student loans...even though they'd be on deferrment I'd need to start paying them back, since I owe A LOT from undergrad.

Have you finished any new stories lately? If so, I wouldn't mind having one sent my way.

Ashley Cowger said...

I have to hang my head in shame and admit that I haven't been working on any stories lately. I've been working on a novel which has been taking up most of my writing time, but that's really no excuse. I SHOULD be working on stories also. Maybe that will be my winter break goal . . .