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.