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”

Dreams vs. Goals

The other day, a writer friend of mine and I were talking about our goals. She is a fiction writer, and has actively been working on her writing for more years than me. In fact, she’s finished two manuscripts and is in the process of editing one of them. I on the other hand have a handful of articles in the local city paper, a few finished essays, and a lot of incomplete, yet buzzing ideas. Do you have any goals for the next year? she asked me.

“Well, it’s a stretch right now, but I want to be published in Bitter Southerner,” I said. “Maybe in 2019.”

“That’s a great dream, but that’s not really a realistic goal,” my friend replied. “You can’t control whether or not you get published in Bitter Southerner. A goal should be something that you can control.”

“Maybe your goal,” she continued, “could be to submit an essay to Bitter Southerner.”

I felt a little wounded–was this just a way to lower my expectations and avoid the pain of rejection? But I knew my friend was right. She shared with me that her goal was to finish the edits on her manuscript, not to get a book published.

I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. My goals shouldn’t require divine intervention. They should be realistic, under my control, achievable. Achievable goals are not a lowering of expectations. They are the stepping stones to achieving the larger big picture dream. For me, that dream is to get an essay published in Bitter Southerner, which in itself is part of a larger fantasy of my future writing career.

And here’s the thing, dreams and fantasies have nothing to do with THE WORK. My fantasy future self has a cool edgy hair cut and stylish, cohesive wardrobe. My first book is about to be published–it’s a compilation of essays that critics are calling “triumphant, breathtaking…” I have a beach house where I spend the summers with my husband. There’s a tidy desk in front of a window that overlooks the water. This is where I drink coffee and spend my mornings writing. Continue reading “Dreams vs. Goals”

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.