MFA Semester One is Done!

Last week I completed the first semester of my creative writing MFA! I passed with all A’s, but more importantly, I feel like I have gained confidence as a writer. Here are some highlights:

  1. I wrote fiction and not all of it sucked. Going into the program, I knew my strength was in writing nonfiction, but that I wanted to use the MFA as an opportunity to try new forms and expand my skill set as a writer. My fiction workshop (well, all my classes, really) was still very challenging, but I produced a few things that I’m proud of, including a story that my MFA program chose to submit to the AWP Intro Journals Project. And best of all, I had fun making stuff up.
  2. I learned how to give and receive constructive feedback. It sounds cliche, but I learned just as much reading others’ work as I did sharing my own. I tried to be generous in giving suggestions, enthusiasms, and critiques. In turn, I was more aware of avoiding certain pitfalls in my own writing. Or I tried to emulate a craft technique that one of my classmates had done to great success. And hearing others’ feedback on my work was validating and helpful. I learned that in nonfiction, I need to tell more, give more insight into my thought process, offer confident, “sweeping generalizations” (a la Phillip Lopate). In fiction, I learned to heighten and draw out the tension, to not end so quickly and abruptly, to explore my narrators’/characters’ impulses and desires more fully.
  3. I read diverse and interesting books! I took a class called “Works in Conversation,” a literature class where we explored “literary fan fiction.” We read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, among others. In my fiction workshop we read experimental works by Amina Cain, Steven Dunn, and Carmen Machado. In that workshop, we wrote “imitations” of these authors’ styles or some element of their craft. I found that the imitations gave me room to play and helped me free myself from self doubt.
  4. I wrote a lot. I REVISED a lot. There was a lot of emphasis on revision in both my fiction and nonfiction workshops. Not just little revisions, but big structural revisions. One of my essays transformed into something completely different than how it started, save for a couple paragraphs. I learned that nothing is wasted, even the 12 pages of dialogue and description that didn’t make the cut. Often, it wasn’t until a few pages in, that I figured out what I was really writing about. This discovery process was in turns frustrating and exciting.

Last semester I took 11 credits, which was overwhelming, especially when multiple creative projects were due the same week. I didn’t have time or energy for the gym. I ate more frozen pizza than a normal person should. I didn’t go out much with friends. Next semester I’ll be taking 6 credits–a fiction workshop and “Forms of Drama.” I’m looking forward to pacing myself, taking more risks, submitting more of my work, and generally diving deeper into my writing.

Low Residency MFA Week 1

I started my online MFA classes last week. I’m taking a full courseload this semester: a Fiction Workshop (3 credits), a Creative Non-Fiction Workshop (3 credits), a literature class (3 credits), an in-person week long residency in October (1 credit), and editing the literary magazine (1 credit). Looking at the syllabi and counting up the number of written pieces and books to be read (22), I felt a cold sweat coming on. How the hell am I going to do this? Nonetheless, I’ve already submitted some assignments, and am staying on top of the reading.

Here are a few takeaways from my first week: Continue reading “Low Residency MFA Week 1”

In a Real Writer’s House

Before I took my creative writing class, I didn’t personally know any full-time, professional writers. Yes, there were many I admired, but I imagined them in a world far removed from my own–tucked away in urban lofts or secluded, rustic cabins, typing complex, metaphor-laden sentences on a laptop while sipping on a cup of pour-over coffee.

Then I met E, a successful, well-respected, full-time writer who also appeared to be a normal human being with a fondness for collared shirts in muted colors. During the six weeks of writing class, we writing students got to know each other and our teacher E. She was approachable and seemed genuinely interested in our lives–a deep curiosity that seemed to spill over from her experience as a journalist.

During one of our classes, she told us that a piece that she had submitted to a literary magazine was picked up and would be published the following week. Her excitement was palpable and contagious. My classmates and I couldn’t contain our curiosity. What was the submission process like? we asked. How long did it take to research and write the piece? How did she choose which publication to submit the article to?

Incredibly, E answered these questions in generous, glorious detail while we listened with rapt attention. As she demystified the basics of her draft to publication process, I felt a tingling awareness: Could I do this? Maybe I could do this.

After the class ended, I kept in touch with E. It felt important to keep her in my orbit, like a writerly guru. I wanted her knowledge and experience to rub off on me. Continue reading “In a Real Writer’s House”

What do I write?

So, I mentioned in my last post that I aim to write 500 words a day. Having a daily word count goal is a solid piece of advice that’s often repeated by other writers. But as a new writer, I’m often stumped. What should I be writing?

Here’s my dilemma: I have a thousand ideas fluttering around in my brain, and I’m not sure which one to pin down. There’s that Saturday I went blackberry picking, and came home with 16 fire ant bites and 4 gallons of berries. There are the reflections I have around spending time with my aging grandma–going to her senior aqua aerobics class, how she dealt with an onset of mental illness in her 70s, but is now living the happiest, most social years of her life in a retirement community. There are the percolations of a novel, or maybe two novels, none of which are fully formed enough to pin down.

What I’ve been doing is writing what moves me in the moment–the essay about my grandmother for example. I write a shitty rough draft for a couple days, and then move onto something else. Often, after a long day at work, I just write an entry in my journal and call it a day. I feel lost without a concrete goal, like I’m wading out into the water, but as soon as I feel it lap around my knees I turn back towards shore.

How do I know what to work towards? How does anyone know when an idea is fully formed enough to begin translating into the written word? When do I abandon the shitty draft, and when do I come back to it to continue shaping, prodding, expanding? And then once it’s done…do I send it out to a publication? Or sit on it until the time is right?

And maybe I’ve just answered my own question. Keep going. Finish something. Jumping from draft to draft is an expression of my fear, I think. “Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability,” says Anne Lamott. I’m trying, it’s just that sometimes the ideas overwhelm me with the power of their potential, and I fear I won’t do them justice.

Writer Baby Steps

I’m taking baby steps toward being a real life writer. It’s been a bumpy four weeks since my writing class ended–I was producing one edited personal essay each week during class–but I’m plodding a long nonetheless. Here are some baby steps I’ve taken in the past month to become a better writer.

  1. Write (most) every day. This is a piece of advice I’ve heard over and over again from professional writers. Writing is a craft, and practicing consistently is the key to improving. I don’t write for a word goal (Anne Lamott recommends at least 300 words per day, while the #AmWriting ladies shoot for 1,000), but usually 500 words minimum feels about right for me. I also count writing in my journal towards the goal of writing everyday. I’ve slowly shifted my journal practice from being a diary-like confessional, to more like a series of mini essays, where I recreate interesting conversations with my mother-in-law, or recount a humid, sweaty afternoon picking blackberries in Morton, Mississippi.
  2. Write for a local publication. Emphasis on the “baby” in this step, but I’ve started to write little freelance things for our local “alternative newspaper.” The pieces I’ve written are about food and gardening, fluffy things, but I’m still getting experience writing on a deadline, working with an editor, and sending invoices to get paid for freelance work. These assignments pay very little, but they are also quick to write. I would like to write for some other local magazines and websites, just for some extra practice and resume padding.
  3. Read books and articles about writing. I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and started on DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira, host of the podcast by the same name. Other books like Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and David Sedaris’ Calypso aren’t necessarily instructional, but I got some interesting writerly insight from them nonetheless.
  4. Start a writing group. After our creative non-fiction class ended, all of us students decided we wanted to continue meeting. Though our writing styles differ, we all are committed to improving our writing and getting published. We met for the first time last night at a local coffee shop where we chatted about MFAs and politics, then sat down to do a 20 minute writing activity and share a piece of writing. It feels good to be part of a group of people who encourage one another to write more and write better.
  5. “Come out” as a writer. I’ve begun to self-identify as a “writer” when it comes up in conversation. I’ve told my family and some close friends about my writing ambitions. I even added the word “writer” to my LinkedIn blurb. There is something so freeing about speaking aloud the words “I am a writer, aspiring to become published.” Each time I say it, it feels a little more true, a little less imposter-y.
  6. Apply to an MFA program. This is the biggest, boldest step I have taken towards becoming a writer. For now, it looks like I have been accepted to the low residency MFA program I applied to, which means I would start taking classes this Fall. I am excited, and so very nervous.

So far, I’m happy with where my writing is headed. Of course, I could always be better, and more consistent, and more aggressive about getting published. And I’m still facing a lot of anxieties and challenges, which I’ll write about next time.

 

Applying to an MFA

I applied to an MFA program.

To be honest, an MFA wasn’t on my radar until I took my writing class. During the first class, one of the other students mentioned she was applying to MFA programs. Our instructor mentioned that she had done a low-residency MFA at Bennington College. My mind-gears started turning. I did some research the following week on low residency MFAs. They’re mostly online, with a few weeks of in-person workshops and seminars throughout the year. There’s only one low residency MFA program in Mississippi, at the Mississippi University for Women. It was astonishingly affordable, less than half the cost of the Bennington program.

Writing. Creative writing. Putting words to paper, describing and condensing the world around me, translating ephemeral thought and opinion into black and white type–it’s the hardest and most rewarding thing.

An MFA, specifically the MUW MFA, began to make more and more sense. My business is in the midst of a transition (vague, I know), allowing me to explore new career options. I also have AmeriCorps award money that needs to be spent on education expenses in the next few years, or else it will disappear. Plus, a low residency program also allows for the flexibility to work full time while going to school. And not only is MUW affordable, but it’s situated smack dab in the heart of the South, like me. Also Eudora Welty went there!

Most importantly, the real reason I applied: I want to become a better writer. I’m ready to plunge straight into the deep end. I want to be published. I want to write a book, maybe even multiple books. And I can’t think of a more thorough writerly boot camp than an MFA program.

The application deadline is June 30, but after an encouraging call with the director of the program, I decided to whip my application into shape and submit it as soon as possible. I contacted old professors to write me recommendation letters, then I sat down for the agonizing task of writing my LETTER OF INTENT.

There are few things more agonizing than writing a letter to showcase your skill as a writer, knowing that it will be read by other professional writers. Thank god for drafts, because my first draft was full of whimsical stories about my childhood obsession with the Little House on the Prairie books and how I uttered the word “butterfly” at 10 months and my mom thought I was a genius, and how I wanted to be Harriet the Spy for a good 3 years. And then I deleted all of that garbage.  My letter ended up being to the point. I briefly shared some pertinent personal background, my undergrad studies of English & Spanish literature, the authors who have influenced me, and why the program appealed to me. Here is an excerpt:

I primarily write nonfiction essays on the intersection of place, culture, and identity. This intersection endlessly fascinates me as a transplant to the South, as a child of the suburbs, as a Jew living in the Bible Belt, and as a woman living in a man’s world. Tom Wolfe once said, “it is much more effective to arrive in any situation as a man from Mars, than to try to blend in.” I often find myself as a sort of “woman from Mars” in various situations; the perspective of the outsider is one I find most interesting and advantageous as a writer.

I received good feedback from the director, and if all goes well, I will start the program this fall. I could not be more excited. (Also nervous!) Doing an MFA is the ultimate grand gesture to my writing. It is a statement that my writing is worth the investment.

What are your thoughts on an MFA program? Would you ever apply to one? Did you find an MFA helpful in your writing career? I’m so curious to know.