Sunday, May 30, 2010

What Other Options Are There?

I want to talk a little about writers’ conferences and non-graduate school writing programs this week. One thing that I kept thinking about as I was at the Writing Works Conference a few weeks ago was how a lot of the ideas that you’re made to explicitly think about at a writing conference are pretty much the same ideas that you study and discuss in formal graduate workshops. Many conferences also offer manuscript critiques with agents, editors, and successful writers.

And if these conference critiques aren’t quite enough for you, there are also a number of intensive workshop programs, which can span anywhere between a single weekend to a couple of months, during which time you participate in workshops and are also given ample time to write. You also are likely to become a part of a community of writers, as enrollment in these programs is usually kept quite small and you have nobody to interact with during the duration of the conference but the other writers.

In other words, these conferences and workshop programs offer many of the same benefits that MFA programs do, but for less of a time commitment (and for some people, less of a financial commitment, although most MFA programs offer teaching assistantships so that students do not have to pay tuition).

There are, however, a few key differences between MFA programs and these other routes. One is that, while an MFA program might be quite a time commitment, spending a lot of time in a program might be precisely what you need to bring you from aspiring to full fledged writer. I know I’m glad for having had three full years to devote to writing, and I don’t think it would be the same to devote a month, say, or a couple of weeks.

On the other hand, while most MFA students do not have to pay tuition, the three (or sometimes two) years that you spend in an MFA program are usually spent well below the poverty line. You get a stipend as a teaching assistant, but it really isn’t much. It’s enough to live by, if you can learn to live frugally, but for many aspiring writers it might be unreasonable to even consider living in poverty for two or three years. What if you have children to take care of, or perhaps massive credit card debt that you will need enough income to pay down, school or no school?

Another consideration is whether the degree itself will open any doors for you, personally. One of the big things you get from an MFA program is experience teaching, and teaching is really the only thing that I can think of that an MFA degree definitively qualifies you to do. If you want to be a college English teacher, then you should go to a formal program. Writers’ conferences and workshops can be useful in a lot of ways, but they will not prepare you for a career in academia. If you’re not interested in teaching, however, then it’s possible that an MFA program isn’t the right path for you. Teaching can be stressful and it can distract you from writing, but if you want to go to school for free, most programs expect you to teach. You may end up finding (as so many creative writing grads do) that your writing ends up taking a backburner to the time and energy you must spend learning to become a decent teacher.

There’s also, of course, the question of life experience. If you devote yourself to writing for three years and are mostly surrounded by other writers, you may not come out of the program with as much interesting stuff to write about as you would have had you been working a regular job and hanging out with regular people during that time.

I guess what it all comes down to is that I think MFA programs can be great, and I also think these intensive workshops seem great, and I also think writers’ conferences are great. Simply put, there are many ways to study and hone your craft. The real question is what will be right for you?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Writer’s Block: Take Two

Last week I talked about the writer’s block lecture I attended at the Columbus Writing Works conference a few weeks ago. The lecture was extremely interesting and helpful, but I felt that, in general, the entire theme for the conference (or at least, pretty much all of the events that I attended) was how to handle writer’s block and the difficulty of forcing yourself to sit down and write.

Many of the writers talked about how difficult it can be, even for seasoned professionals with book deals and deadlines and no day jobs to distract them, to force the ideas to come. Julie Gregory, the author of the hugely successful memoir Sickened: The Story of a Lost Childhood, talked about going through a period of heightened productivity, during which she would wake up every morning with beautiful sentences in her head. This was the impetus for her writing career, but, she added, it didn’t last. After she actually landed an agent and a book deal for her first memoir, the muse essentially stopped visiting, perhaps having decided that she didn’t need it anymore, and she realized that writing this thing was actually going to be hard work.

This idea kept coming up again and again at the conference (as it often does when a group of established writers pass their wisdom on to newbies): most of the time, writing is not an ethereal experience. You don’t usually feel like there are angels whispering in your ear, and all you have to do is transcribe what they say. That happens sometimes (and when it does make sure you take advantage of the inspiration while you’ve got it!), but most of the time it’s not that easy. Most of the time it really is work.

I want to offer up a few choice quotes from the conference. These quotes say it better than I ever could:

“Writers hate to write, but they love what they’ve written.” (Julie Gregory, who said that most writers have to really force themselves to write, but that it’s worth it for the final product. This is not exactly the same, mind you, as the adage, “Some people want to write and some people want to have written,” which is more, I’ve always felt, about the difference between wanting to be a Writer, capital W, versus actually doing the work to put together a strong piece of writing.)

“Doing it’s hard, but not doing it’s harder.” (Julie Gregory. “It,” of course, being writing.)

“Writing never gets easier.” (David Rakoff, who pointed out that writing is not like some other endeavors, where you eventually reach a point at which it comes easily and you feel that you have mastered it. Writing, he said, continues to be difficult no matter how many books you’ve got under your belt. Your first drafts will, for the most part, never be very good. The quality of a final draft will almost always come down to how much work you were willing to put into it.)

And my personal favorite: “Writing is really, really, really hard.” (David Rakoff)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Writer’s Block

My favorite of the lectures that I attended at the Columbus Writing Works conference a couple of weeks ago was Ann Palazzo’s discussion on writer’s block. Palazzo started by having us each fill out a questionnaire intended to help us uncover the reasons for our writer’s block in the hopes of then helping us overcome our individual blocks. Just the questionnaire itself seemed to pry my personal block open a bit because it forced me to face my excuses head on and acknowledge that they didn’t really make sense.

The questionnaire also brought up the idea that maybe you shouldn’t force yourself to work on specific scenes/chapters/stories/etc. that you feel like you should be writing, but instead, let yourself write what you happen to feel like writing at the moment that you sit down at the computer. Writing anything is still writing, after all.

From there, Palazzo focused her discussion around six major myths about writing, myths like the idea that when you really get good at writing, you never get writer’s block again, or that writer’s block is inherently bad (she made a very good point that sometimes, writer’s block might just be your brain’s way of letting you know that it’s time to take a break and recuperate. When you’re strengthening your muscles, you have to take breaks between workouts to let your muscles rebuild. Why wouldn’t the same, she asked, be true of writing?).

Palazzo finished her lecture by giving us some concrete strategies to overcome writer’s block. Many of these were things we’ve all heard before, I’m sure (don’t be afraid to write a bad draft, for example, since you can revise it later, or put your story/poem/essay aside when you get stuck so that you can come back to it later with fresh eyes). She made two points, though, that I thought were particularly insightful.

One was that you should analyze your writer’s block and come up with a specific plan to beat it (which is essentially what she had us do at the beginning of the session). This involves, also, analyzing your own history as a writer. What has worked for you in the past? What was your environment like at the times when you felt really inspired and what seems to be the ideal writing context for you? Don’t worry, she said, about what famous writers say they do. You’ve got to figure out what gets your fingers flying across that keyboard.

The other point was to tell yourself that nobody will ever read whatever it is that you are writing. This might sometimes mean lying to yourself, if you’re already at the level of getting things published regularly, but I think it can make a huge difference in unblocking that creative flow of words. At the very end of the session, for example, she had us do a writing prompt (I’m a huge proponent, by the way, of the value of writing prompts, and while we’re on the topic you should check out our MFA/MFYou Facebook page, where we intend to post writing prompts often). Just knowing that it was a prompt, knowing that if it was lousy it didn’t matter because I was only writing it because some lady had told me to write it, opened my writing valve up all the way and I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.

The main thing I took away from the lecture was that writer’s block happens. It just does. And you shouldn’t be afraid of it. If you just face it head on and plow through it, you can overcome it. Either way, it’s really not the end of the world (and it doesn’t mean anything about you as a writer) if you lose a little time to writer’s block now and again. The trick is to not allow it to paralyze you with fear. It seems to me that it’s the fear of writer’s block itself that really ends up shutting you down.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I’m going to get back to the Writing Works Conference next week because there are a few more topics that I would like to talk to you about. This week, though, we’re going to talk about something else. Last night I went to a reading by George Saunders and Robin Hemley at Ohio University’s annual Spring Literary Festival, and something very interesting struck me as I was listening to George Saunders read.

Both writers, first of all, were fabulously entertaining. Hemley’s new memoir, DO-OVER! – in which he relives painful moments from his childhood, only this time he does the things he wishes he had done at the time – is high on my list, now, of books I’d like to read. It’s George Saunders’s story, though, that brought up in my mind what I’d like to talk about this week: the importance of plot.

Now I didn’t have a chance to attend the lecture Saunders gave at the Lit. Fest. this year, but I’m told one of the things he talked about was his days as an MFA student and having decided that he needed to write in a more “literary” manner. He told a story (I hear tell) about writing a novel and trying to make it as literary and serious and MFA as possible. He realized after completing the novel that A) it wasn’t any good, and B) it just wasn’t the sort of thing he wanted to write. And that realization, it sounds like, was part of the impetus for his hugely successful career.

The story Saunders read at the reading was brilliant on all three of what I consider the key levels of fiction writing: character, language, and plot. The story was divided into sections that were written in the first person perspective of the three main characters. Saunders captured the voice and personality of each character perfectly through each character’s respective narration, so he absolutely hit the character and language side of fiction right off the bat. Partway through the story, though, it became clear that this story was in fact extremely plot driven – I just hadn’t noticed it at first because I was so drawn in by the voice of these characters.

What I consider to be one of the major problems with the graduate level workshop experience is that there tends to be so much focus put on character and language that many of the stories end up having no plot. I’m not exaggerating. I can remember workshopping a story one time where all of the students in workshop agreed that it was extremely boring, but most everybody except for me decided to see that as a good thing because it was a reflection of how empty this character’s life is. Alright, but boring is boring. If a class full of people who have advanced English level educations – people who tend to read more deeply and stick with things longer than the average reader – thinks your story is boring, that sounds like a problem to me.

So often in the MFA world, any sign of a plot gets written off as being “contrived” – one of those workshop buzzwords, like “cliché,” that pretty much loses all meaning about midway through your first semester in grad school. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t want your plot to be contrived (or cliché, for that matter), but good fiction should have a story arc. Good fiction should be about something.

Good fiction should also have well established characters and beautiful language, yes. All three of these important elements are there, I think you’ll find, in any really good story. But if all you’re doing is writing beautiful language or developing a really well rounded character, well, you don’t really have a story to tell, do you?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Writing Schedules

I just got back from a conference in Columbus: the Seventh Annual Writing Works Conference, sponsored by Columbus State Community College (which, by the way, has an extremely impressive creative writing program for a community college). The keynote speaker at this truly magnificent conference was David Rakoff (who I was fairly ambivalent to prior to this weekend but who I am definitely a fan of now. He read us some really excellent stuff from his new book forthcoming in a few months). In addition to Rakoff’s keynote address and humor writing workshop, there were a range of extremely interesting lectures and workshops run by a variety of writers. I feel genuinely surprised by how useful this conference was (which is not to say that these sorts of things are rarely useful, but I’ve been to so many panel discussions, lectures, and workshops that I supposed there wasn’t much that I hadn’t heard before), and in the next few weeks I will definitely be addressing a few of the key topics the conference brought up in my mind.

One point in particular that kept coming up in the various lectures and workshops as well as during Rakoff’s Q&A was the idea that many successful writers don’t adhere to any kind of strict writing schedule. Many of the writers at the conference talked about how they don’t worry about scheduling time in their lives to write or habitually writing for X amount of hours at X o’clock every day. Some of them even pointed out that you absolutely cannot expect yourself to write every day; sometimes there are simply other things that you need to do.

One writer said that if she tries to set aside time to write, then she never feels like writing during that time, but she often feels like writing at other times, when she should be doing something else. So she writes at those times. Screw it, right? Another writer said she writes whenever she feels like writing, and she doesn’t when she doesn’t. Sometimes she’ll wake up in the middle of the night and write and then go back to sleep. Rakoff said that he doubts he’s ever spent more than ten straight minutes writing (surely an exaggeration but you get the point).

Almost all the writers who I saw speak seemed to agree that, while the idea of writing at seven o’clock every morning sounds lovely, that just isn’t the way it works for any of them (and they seem to be doing just fine regardless, thank you very much). It was an intriguing variation from the advice successful writers so often give amateurs: you should create a schedule, develop a habit, set aside an hour or two that will be your time to write every day. It seems successful writers often give that advice – perhaps to help the otherwise helpless because perhaps, they figure, if you have to ask you aren’t going to be able to work it out organically – but many of them don’t need to follow it themselves.

Now in fairness, this might partially be due to the fact that most of them make a living off of their writing and so have an unlimited amount of time in which to write every day. If you have no other pressing needs, it might be easier to write when you feel like it and not when you don’t, while it can be a bit more difficult for those of us who have to work full time and must write in the few spare hours that are left.

Even so, it’s useful to keep in mind that many of the writers who do make a living off of writing do not force their brains into submission according to a set writing schedule. Take that for what you will: an interesting tidbit, or perhaps encouragement that it’s okay to keep on doing whatever works for you. Write by a schedule or write when you want. Write every day or in frenzied bursts when you have a few days in a row off. Don’t, though, get down on yourself because you think the “real” writers are clocking in for eight hour shifts, are writing until their fingers bleed. Because they aren’t, and you don’t have to, either.