When Should You Know How to Write a Short Story?

One of my friends recently graduated from college and, as a person serious about writing fiction, she began researching MFA programs in creative writing. Along with deciding what she wanted from a graduate writing program, she interviewed several people who have completed MFA programs, from the recently graduated to those who finished graduate school years ago. She wondered: what do I know, what do I know I don’t know, what do I not know I don’t know, and so forth. Most of the advice has been good if relatively straightforward—don’t go straight from undergraduate, get full funding, etc. But one particular bit of advice she received was quite different. She was told that she should go to a MFA program already knowing how to write a short story.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit: should a writer enter a MFA program already knowing how to write a short story?

Here is the usual “Should I get an MFA or not?” pattern. An emerging writer (note: I’ll go with “emerging” rather than young because not all writers planning to enter a MFA program are 22 years old) likes to write and thinks, maybe I’m good at this. Or, more forcefully, I want to do this for a living. Basic program criteria are fired through: low-res or residential, two or three years, teaching or not. The faculty is examined, the recent graduates’ publications, maybe the literary journal that comes from the program.

Here is the usual “How do I get in?” pattern. The emerging writer fires up the best story (or stories) one can. A personal statement agonizing over why this matters, at all, is written. Old professors are chased down and politely/desperately asked for letters of recommendation. A decision, usually driven entirely by financials (damn you, application fees!), is made about how many programs to apply to, and then application packets are mailed off. March becomes a month of nail-biting anxiety, wondering, “Did I get in?”

I hadn’t really considered what an emerging writer should already know before entering a program. The previous two paragraphs really focused on the process, but didn’t focus much on the individual. Loosely, the insidious “they” tell an emerging writer to submit only his/her best work to enter a writing program. Most of the publicly available advice doesn’t really ask, directly or indirectly, what a potential MFA candidate should already be able to do with the pen and the paper (Or, keyboard and screen. But, whatever, stay with me …). It’s about “feeling ready” or something sentimental about where you are emotionally as an artist, but rarely asks the emerging writer for a self-assessment. What can you actually do?

Time and experience are the two things often stressed before going to a graduate program. After an entire life spent in school, does a twenty two year old have anything to actually say, to actually write about, in a meaningful way? While I’m inclined to lean on William Maxwell, who believed you had the full spectrum of life experiences before you were five years old, practically, I’ve rarely seen a writer succeed without being out of school for a few years and living a bit.

The undergraduate creative writing experience probably does not prepare a student for a MFA program. In my Intro to Writing Fiction class, I never mention publication; I tell my students on the first day that my goal is simply to get them to continue writing fiction after my class is over. The University of Missouri also offers undergraduates Intermediate and Advanced classes in writing fiction. Students can take up to five creative writing classes, which is, I imagine, standard or close to standard at other universities. Does that seem like enough to know how to write a short story?

Almost certainly not. Reading widely and writing endlessly, are almost impossible to achieve in college (unless the student is on a six year plan and/or is a phenomenally mediocre student who blows off all other coursework. This is not inconceivable). Further, an adult who discovers writing as a calling is probably limited to online classes or community workshops where the seriousness of the other writers is questionable and, maybe much more importantly, the demands of Life are constant and neverending. This type of emerging writer is probably thirsting for a community of like-minded folks who want to be fully immersed in a writing life. Both categories of emerging writers feel the MFA program will fill in the gaps that, thus far, they have not been able to fill on their own.

Analogy: What should a college basketball recruit be able to do? While it would be nice if the youngster had a killer jump shot, sick handle, and could rebound like Charles Barkley, many highly touted college recruits know very little about the game. They usually know how to score and are phenomenal athletes. There is the old saying, you can’t coach height. But they aren’t expected to be, and in fact rarely are, finished products. There is so much for them to still learn about the game on a fairly rudimentary level.

Any experienced writer will tell you there is no such things as “mastering” the short story. You might know how to write a story, but each story presents a unique set of challenges. For each new story that makes you feel like Chekhov, the next story will humble you. How can you be prepared, really, ever, to survive such a roller-coaster with no breaks? Analogy #2: Imagine building a house. You need certain things — a roof, walls, plumbing, electricity — but each house you build is different. Every house you might build has a new set of demands, aesthetics, quirks, many of which you might have no control over (location, location, location!). All you know is how to be prepared for the challenge of each house, and the person(s) paying you to build the house.

This means having a lot of tools and knowledge at your disposal, and being flexible to the outside demands over which you have no control. Tools and knowledge: how to create narrative tension in a space (or a twenty page story), how to embed a home with character (“character”: a double entendre!), what things can be left out (you don’t need that extra half-bath; or, how I learned to cut the extraneous story thread and love my short story), an aesthetic style to the language that is appropriate to the story (you like sunken living rooms? all right, then …), and a wide-range of additional—and perhaps endless—tortured metaphors comparing your writing tools to building a house.

And if “being flexible to outside demands” sounds strange, ask any writer about the paradoxical frustration of being the sole creator of a story while simultaneously trying to understand its characters or “figure out the story.”

Can this be learned before graduate school? I don’t see why not. If one read “Everything Rises Must Converge” and read that story over and over again—I mean, really read it—and then retyped it, and thought about the choices in every paragraph, in every sentence, taking notes on what O’Connor did with each line … if you really did this, and not with just this story, but with the other greats, would, then, perhaps, you have a fuller grasp of the short story?

So, yes: maybe you should be able to write a short story before you go to a MFA program.

Like a true basketball player, a gym rat, the writer who “knows how to write a short story” doesn’t assume to have all the answers. This weekend, I watched a YouTube clip of Hakeem Olajuwon teaching Carmelo Anthony various spin moves. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking basketball, homebuilding, or writing. For the best, the learning never stops. The emerging writer truly ready for the leap to a graduate program, a story can be read, written, and discussed the story with a greater level of nuance and complexity than the average emerging writer. The emerging writer can always write a competent short story … and can also recognize that it is a story that is merely competent, not great, not yet, but believes, perhaps stubbornly, that the story (and consequently its author) can get there.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Working Writers Series: Johannah Racz

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Today’s interview is with Johannah Racz.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I graduated with an MFA from Colorado State University in 2001 and published in a number of literary magazines around that time (Puerto del Sol, Peregrine, GSU Review, Northwest Review, Sycamore Review). I also won two AWP intro journals awards while I was at CSU, and my thesis/poetry collection was a finalist for the New Issues poetry prize in 2002.

That was quite a while ago now. Since then, I’ve been running my own copywriting/technical writing business, Heliograph Communications, and I’m a single mother of two boys, ages 7 and 10. I’ve gone through marriage, birth, and divorce. I’ve developed expertise in seemingly unlikely areas through my work, such as the manufacture of solar panels and flat-screen TVs. And now I’m struggling to make ends meet–financially and creatively. The upheaval and struggle, though, have been the catalyst for a creative upsurge for me. Over the past few years, I’ve produced a lot of poetry and more recently, memoir. And my motivation to publish has resurfaced.

This is wonderful, but at the same time, it’s a struggle for time and energy to write and to send out for publication. I’m a single mother, a business owner, a head-of-household, a novice drummer, and a poet. I had a realization a few months ago that there’s no reason that I can’t be the writer that I knew myself to be in graduate school. I have known that writing was my calling since age 8, and I am recommitting myself to that.

One idea that I’ve been thinking about recently is the way my writing style and subject matter have changed over time. I imagine that I’m not alone in that. For me, there have definitely been specific themes that have been central during certain periods of my life. I think that natural creative changes are sometimes misidentified as writer’s block, because we start to stereotype ourselves as artists and think that we should repeat our past successes. We identify with the successes instead of remaining open to the creative flow. The trick is to continually go out into the unknown—in form and content—as the creative impulse leads us. When we try to force our writing to look and sound the way it used to, we do become blocked. We create the block. So, faith in the creative impulse is key to lasting inspiration.

And, as a single mother, I’ve become more adaptable in finding times and places to be creative. I can stand a lot more background noise and interruption, because I have to. I have a lot more stamina in general, because the dishes have to get done, the laundry needs washing, and the poems need writing, too. It’s easy to get plowed under by the sheer amount of work that life can be, but that’s when I try to remember to take the reins and get back to the creative.

Paradoxically, writing is the first thing to be sacrificed when life gets busy, but then, it inevitably comes around again as my salvation when I become overwhelmed by life’s tasks and external pressures. Eventually, it insists.

So there’s a million things I want to ask you about, but what struck me especially about your intro was how you noticed specific themes have changed over time: was this in reaction to major life upheavals, reading different material, or perhaps a natural reaction to years passing?

That’s a great question. I think that all three have been influences. Earlier on, during high school, college, and my MFA, when I was just beginning to get acquainted with major writers, that was probably the biggest influence on me. That gave me a kind of framework and permission to speak. I had this creative impulse that seemed to emerge organically from my being, and those influences helped orient me, and give me concepts of form and theme.

I remember reading a lot of confessional poetry as a young writer, Anne Sexton and Plath. And the themes I wrote about, before I really even had any conception of “writing” as it is defined by the world, were always intensely personal. I was born into difficult circumstances, not unlike most of us, and writing was my tool and my weapon and my medicine. As a child, I wrote about family. As I grew, I wrote more about romantic love, and now I find myself writing about more spiritual themes. All of these were in response to circumstances that felt difficult.

I would say that in the past decade or so, there has been a major shift into the spiritual, and the themes that I wrote about earlier kind of come under that umbrella. Issues of family and eros and everyday gestures are part of a bigger cosmology. So, I suppose I feel like my awareness has expanded, and my writing has expanded along with the spiritual expansion. When I say “spiritual,” I don’t refer to any particular religion. I’m talking about the way Mary Oliver addresses spirituality, the spirituality of the everyday, imminent world.

In terms of upheaval, I’ve had the rug pulled out under me many times over the past few years, and it makes you humble, and it makes you more aware of the present moment, I think. Or else, it drives you to drink or to something else to attain numbness. But, I think that when we are able to look at our lives, to keep our eyes open despite the strong wind that may be blowing, there is the opportunity for expansion. I guess I see this as the major influence on my writing in the past few years. Divorce, financial struggle, single motherhood, a kind of “total life devastation,” as one friend described it, have forced me to shift into greater presence and acceptance, and I think that shows in my writing. It’s been an incredible period in my life. Two years ago, I drove a dear friend to the emergency room to find out that night that he had a brain tumor. He died four months later, and I was there as much as possible through the process. A few weeks later, I was present for the birth of a friend’s son. Death and birth. Life has taken me to the edge over the past few years, and it’s terrifying and exhilarating and exhausting, but of course, all of it is a gift.

This might be an odd question but I know that, especially for those who are going into the MFA or who have just left it, one of the criticisms lobbied is that so many of the writers are young and have not “experienced life”, as it were. Do you think there is something to be said about writing from an author who has lives a full, if tumultuous life, as opposed to one who perhaps only has a curious or excessive imagination?

Another great question! I think that everyone who feels compelled to write, and who is brave enough to put something authentic on the page, has something valuable to say. Different “kinds” of writing appeal to different audiences. I’m certainly reading different poetry than I did as a teenager. There is room for all kinds of genius. Sometimes genius comes after or because of life experience, and sometimes, it comes from some kind of spontaneous insight. I think it usually comes from a combination of the two. Life experience, if we let it, can clear the way for those insights. But some of the lucky ones don’t need the drama and tumultuous experiences in order to access something meaningful that they can then translate into compelling writing.

I think those who are just entering or just leaving an MFA are just as much in the “real world” as any of us. It’s just a different experience, a different place in life, and each “place” in life, each stage of experience or maturity, offers a unique perspective. My passion is for the authentic creative urge, and I have reverence for that wherever and whenever and for whomever it takes place.

I think that having children also gives me some perspective on that issue. I see my near-8 and 10 year old boys, and I watch them write and create artwork, and I believe in their creativity just as much as I believe in anyone’s, but perhaps a little more, because they are my little beloveds.

When do you find the time to write with so many other responsibilities – children, owning a business, even drumming?

I have to admit that I haven’t been such a good drumming student of late. That has fallen by the wayside a bit, although I do come back to it periodically, and I am always listening and learning about drumming. My drum teacher, Ray Wasinger, is the friend I mentioned earlier who passed away about two years ago, so there is some grief there that has made it difficult to return to the music in the same way. But drumming is part of my world, and I’m part of it, which has been incredibly enriching, and has brought new friendship and love into my life. So it is dear to me.

But, back to your question: I write in stops and starts whenever I can. I often use my phone to email myself little bits of poems that I come back to when I have a few minutes. I find pieces of time, in between work and mothering. The issue of time seems less challenging, though, than the issue of energy. Sometimes, I am just plowed under and burned out, and the creative impulse just isn’t there, and I go for a period of perhaps a few weeks where I’m not writing, and I’m just dealing with the essential tasks of living. But the writing urge absolutely returns, and I start again from wherever I left off. There is a thread that doesn’t break.

As a business owner and single mother, it often feels like there is no protective structure, and I have to continually make the effort to create that structure for myself, creatively, personally, and professionally, and for my children. That can be exhausting. I remember the comfort of being in an MFA program–there are clear, defined expectations and schedules, and goals, and even though that can be extremely stressful, it does provide a framework to relax into to some degree.

It helps me sometimes to think of myself as a warrior, living and working out on the edge of “the known,” and making it all up as I go. Uncertainty can be exhausting, even though it is an essential condition of life. Writing can be the saving grace there. Like I said before, writing becomes the consistent thing, the thread that doesn’t break, even though it sometimes suffers when I am exhausted.

I love that – a thread that does not break. That’s a powerful image.

I think of a red thread, for some reason. I saw a quote recently–I think it was maybe a traditional Chinese saying–that we are connected to those we are meant to meet in this life by a red thread. Red seems enduring.

I would like to know more (and I think our readers would too) about the experiences of being a single-mother while writing. That’s a unique perspective, and one that I don’t think enough attention is paid.

I feel like there are many women out there with so much to say, but also so much responsibility that it is difficult to “get it out there.” I think that there are a lot of single mothers with a lot to contribute, but without the resources to support them, and we are doing important work, in mothering, and in our work as writers. It’s easy to get resentful when things are hard. And I do. But that is why this series that you are writing is so wonderful–to give voice to those who haven’t had the opportunity due to whatever life circumstances they may be experiencing. And whatever obstacles there might be, there’s always the pen and paper, or the keyboard. Writing requires so few accoutrements, which is why it can be so equalizing.

I think the hardest thing about single motherhood is the invisibility of the job. And the lack of time to pursue publishing and readings and other opportunities in the writing industry just adds to that. The poems pile up in the drawer, on the hard drive, and maybe never have a reader. There is value in the act of writing itself, without audience, but at the same time, we all need to be heard. And as a single mother, there are so many creative aspects that are never seen or acknowledged, including the cooking and the housekeeping and the parenting. All of these things require creativity. And for me, there’s also the work, which is not only the work itself, but the conceiving of my business–its image, its services, and how I carry it all out. All of this happens without an audience. All of it is underground. That can be very difficult and lonely and discouraging. The writing itself can be a solace and a medicine, but then, there is the “professional” aspect of it that sometimes feels missing, when there isn’t time or energy to send out for publication, or isn’t enough time to send out enough manuscripts.

I’ve recently became part of a wonderful group of writers, and we’ve been doing some readings and writing exercises together, and critiquing each other’s work. This has been a godsend. Still, it’s hard to maintain consistency, because with children, as a friend of mine says, they’re always a step ahead of you, and you’re always scrambling to figure out what a certain behavior means, and what they need physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Mothering is the thing that absolutely requires constant attention. There are times where the boys need me more than others, and when they do, that is my focus, although I can’t let the other things go, either. I have to dig deep during these times and just come up with the energy to do everything that needs to be done. Overall, though, there’s a constant shifting of focus among all of the demands, and that’s an art and a talent. I don’ t think it’s possible to master it; it’s just a matter of being present and dealing with what is on my plate at any given time the best I can. Through all of it, the lesson that keeps returning is presence, and the more I experience uncertainty and face the reality of what is, the more it sharpens my perception of the imminent. That is serious creative training. It’s boot camp. To write, we have to notice. We have to experience the present moment as completely as possible.

You can follow Johannah Racz at www.helio-graph.com

Working Writers Series: Cam Terwilliger

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Today’s interview is with Cam Terwillliger.

cam-terwilliger

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a fiction writer transplanted from Boston to Baton Rouge, where I now teach composition and intro fiction classes at Louisiana State University. Since moving here a year and a half ago, I’ve not only learned to love crawfish and boudin, but my fiction has gone native as well. Specifically, I’ve been working on a historical novel that follows the decline of New Orleans’ red-light district, Storyville, which shut down during World War I. The novel has been a massive change for me. Compared to the stories and poetry I wrote during my MFA at Emerson College, this project has required exponentially more research. If nothing else, though, the book is a great excuse to spend (tax deductible!) time in New Orleans, a city with fascinating—often shocking—history.

As for background, I graduated from Emerson in 2007, and since then I’ve tried a few different jobs in an effort to string together a writing career. Out of school, I stayed in Boston to work full-time at a science nonprofit, doing admin and communications. But eventually I was able to negotiate this job down to part time, allowing me to take on evening creative writing classes at Grub Street, Boston’s (very excellent) creative writing center. After a year of this, I put together enough teaching and freelance writing to quit my day job entirely, which gave me the flexibility to do some wonderful residencies at the VCCA and the American Antiquarian Society. I probably would have continued freelancing for a while, but then fate—happily—intervened. In 2010 I fell in love with my fiancée, Cara Blue Adams of The Southern Review, when she was visiting Boston. As you can tell, it wasn’t long before I packed up and followed her to Louisiana.

In retrospect, the key to surviving the tough years after my MFA was staying in close touch with writing friends. For me, this was natural since many people I knew from Emerson stayed in Boston. We wrote together, went to readings, traded work, shared info on writing opportunities—everything. So in that way the task of being an artist overlapped with my social life, which made it easier to be productive without sacrificing personal relationships. I think we modeled good behavior for each other too. If someone succeeded, we all learned from it. One person that deserves special mention is my good friend, the writer Chip Cheek, who was my puritanical writing partner during this time. Each week, Chip and I set aside certain days when we met at 6:00 AM in a coffee shop to write before work. It was hard forcing yourself to go, but both of us felt we had to follow through. It was too embarrassing to flake out when you knew the other would be there. Essentially we shamed ourselves into doing the work. That sounds awful, but it was always quite fun once we got going. Also: it worked. The stories I wrote and revised there went on to be published shortly after, appearing in magazines like West Branch, Post Road, The Mid-American Review, The Literary Review, and Narrative, which was kind enough to recently name me one of their “15 Below 30.”

What is it about Storyville that captured your interest?

That has a number of answers actually. I first discovered it the way many people do—through the photographs of Ernest Bellocq, who was a photographer that obsessively documented the prostitutes in the district. The Missouri Review ran a piece on Bellocq’s photos a few years back, and after seeing them I was completely taken. The images are often quite candid and give you a glimpse of women that seem both marginalized and commodified, as well as eerily glamorous. I knew I wanted to write about it but I figured it would probably just be a short story. However, when I moved to Louisiana, I started reading into it a little more and became still more intrigued. It turns out that Bellocq is just the tip of the iceberg. Storyville also played a vital role in the birth of jazz, since African Americans were often hired to play the music—considered quite subversive at the time—in brothels. Storyville is also filled with an impossibly long cast of amazing characters: people like the schizophrenic coronet player, Buddy Bolden, or the congressman that owned half of the district, Tom Anderson (aka “The Mayor of Storyville”). So, before I knew it, the project was on its way.

Overall, understanding race relations in the south has turned out to be the most crucial thing. For anyone who wants to explore Jim Crow New Orleans, there couldn’t be a more revealing case study than Storyville in 1917. The place is an object lesson on how the codes of race were both enforced and circumvented. For people invested in segregation, Storyville was especially galling because it was one of the few places where intermingling of blacks and whites was tolerated. As a result, there were several laws passed in an effort to regulate it, to totally remove African Americans from the district, relegating them to a small, more dangerous area above Canal Street. Still, despite reformers’ demands, these laws were laxly upheld.

The historian Alecia Long does an excellent job explaining how this interracial contact was allowed to continue because it was one of the central attractions of the district. For example, Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall became one of the most popular brothels by offering white men the chance to have sex with “octoroons” (women of mixed race). Additionally, Storyville provided whites the chance to participate in jazz. With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand why it was difficult to segregate Storyville. Even though whites had overblown anxieties about racial mixing, there was a co-existing (and extremely profitable) interest in African American culture and African American bodies. Many New Orleanians made tons of money from Storyville’s existence, either by renting property to madams, or by running saloons and cabarets. Naturally, these people were totally uninterested in killing their golden goose.

 Wow, this is so great. I love when I learn something from these interviews.

I know! I can’t believe that this history isn’t more widely talked about. There’s relatively few books about it. It’s actually one of those eras that’s a little hard to study because the myth and the history have begun to mix. For example, little is verifiably known about Bellocq. But there’s many apocryphal stories.

Really? Was he a solitary person or did his work become big posthumously?

There’s a long, long story about it and I don’t know if I can get all the details right. He wasn’t known in his time at all. He was supposedly a creepy loner that had a hunchback (possibly) or a deformed head from hydrocephalus. Or these details might have been made up (or exaggerated) over time. After his death, his photos only survived as glass negative plates in a junk shop somewhere. One story claims they were given away by his brother, a catholic priest. This legend claims that he’s the one that defaced many of these plates. If you look at them, the faces of many of the women are scratched off. But that doesn’t really make sense if you think about it. If he didn’t approve of the photos, why didn’t he just destroy them? Anyway, many years later, in the 70’s, a photographer named Lee Friedlander discovered the plates and reproduced them for an exhibition. That’s how they gained a contemporary audience.

Quasimodo the photographer. Wow. All right – I’m interested in how you went from an MFA to a science non-profit?

Oh yes that’s right! That was a little bit random. When I was nearing the end of my MFA I decided I’d try to dig up an office job to support myself because I’d found teaching composition during graduate school to be really demanding, and not especially well paying. The science non-profit was a place I simply found by answering a craigslist ad. It just so happened that they were interested in somebody that could do a little writing on top of general office admin duties. It was a nice place to work because the folks (although oriented toward the sciences) were also extremely creative and regarded any intellectual endeavor (including writing) highly. The place was called The New England Complex Systems Institute and they were mostly people affiliated with MIT in some capacity. In a nutshell, they used computer models to make sense (aka find patterns) in a huge range of data: from economic systems to the workings of cells. Oftentimes there were underlying rules of math that applied to a variety of different systems. If you look it up you can find an interesting article they published in Science a few years back. It makes the case that you can predict locations likely to result in ethnic violence based on census data, and that this is surprisingly similar to the rules governing “phase transitions,” which are the moments when matter moves from being solid to liquid, or liquid to gas etc.

Are you still writing at 6am? I know this is the process for a lot of writers, and perhaps one where the morning is the only time they have to write (quiet time away from work, children, etc).

That’s a great question. I still find that I do my best writing in the morning, and I prefer it over other times. I feel I’ve got a clarity of thought then. Also, if you write first thing in the morning, then it seems like no matter what happens during the day, you’ve already won, you’ve done the most important thing. However, I don’t have that rigorous morning schedule like I used to. Back when I had the office job it really was the ONLY time I could squirrel away time to write. Now that I’m teaching, I’m no less busy (in fact I’d say that I’m busier), but I have more control over my schedule. I’m lucky to teach only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I aim to write on the off days. Sometimes grading and preparing gets in the way, but it more or less works out. Then, during summer and winter breaks, I always create an overly ambitious goal for “catching up on my manuscript.” Naturally, I never get as much done as I plan, but when I take a minute to reflect I must admit that it is adding up steadily.

Could you tell us a little bit about your thoughts on residencies?

When I first got out of Emerson, I felt a real urgency around the idea of getting my work published (as many people do). But looking back, I think it would have been wiser to use that energy to secure writing residencies and grants instead. Here’s why: When you’re working full time and trying to be a serious writer, time management becomes one of the most important things. You only have so many minutes to write, to submit work, or to apply for things. So, to me, eating up a lot of time sending out submissions for publication doesn’t make the most sense.  When you finally publish, it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t fundamentally help you do the work of writing at all. You get the acknowledgement, but it doesn’t become any easier to write the next story. Whereas when you get residencies or grants, it TOTALLY helps you develop your writing. You either get time to work, or you get money that lets you deal with your life more easily, allowing more time or energy for writing. For example, I won a grant from The Massachusetts Cultural Council that really helped me pay off my student loans, which allowed me to reduce my hours at work and write more. So I think a lot of writers just out of the MFA would be helped by focusing their limited energy on grants and residencies rather than on getting published. Consequently, it’s helpful if you have a job that you wouldn’t mind quitting if a residency or fellowship comes up. So, for the sake of your writing, it may be better to take a decent, totally replaceable job at a company you’re blasé about, rather than one of the cool arts-based  jobs that don’t pay much and demand that you make many sacrifices.

You can follow Cam Terwilliger on twitter @CamTerwilliger. You can also find his article about historical novel research on Grub Street Daily at http://grubdaily.org/digging-in-at-the-archive/.

Working Writers Series: Caleb True

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Our interview this week is with Caleb True

Photo on 2012-02-28 at 19.01 #4

First, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I started writing stories in elementary school, then in middle school I wrote mostly song lyrics. In high school, between playing a lot of punk rock shows, tri-weekly fencing practices, and school, I started writing fiction again, some pretty awful novels and some slightly-less awful poetry. In college, though I started out as an English major, I wasn’t super excited about the prospect of reading and discussing the canon. I felt like I’d already done that in High School. So I studied abroad in Germany, changed my major a lot and eventually finished with an interdisciplinary major. That allowed me to take a variety of honors classes, and, more importantly, some creative writing workshops, which got the ball rolling again. I went to graduate school in History, taking upper-level fiction writing workshops as a kind of recess from coursework. A year out of grad school, out in LA working and playing music, I’d racked up a few fiction publications. I was getting pretty serious about it. This past fall, I applied to some MFA programs, and it looks like I’ll be a part of that world come Autumn. I’m so excited! In a lot of ways it’s a dream come true.

Congrats on getting accepted into an MFA program! What was it that made you want to return to the academy to pursue your craft?

For one thing I’ve always wanted to teach. Working as a TA during my History masters program made me realize I like the seminar, the discussion. Teaching writing, particularly, seems like a dream job, especially after working in restaurants for years and years. Of course an MFA offers me, above all else, the chance to focus on my own writing. I realize, being out of school, that I’ve never been more productive than when taking creative writing workshops. In the first fiction workshop I took “for fun” in graduate school, I wrote something like ten short stories in a matter of weeks. Being in that sort of environment made me want to write, and write hard.

What were the subjects that you were driven to pursue in your writing? Does your music also influence your written work?

Definitely! Some of the history I was reading kind of screamed at me for characterization. So I have this batch of historical fictions. This story  is one; it’s a surrealistic portrait of a sad cousin of American eugenicist Charles B. Davenport. In addition to eugenics, I was reading a lot of gender history, history of the body, history of food, and Soviet History, so a good deal of that stuff finds its way into my work.

As for music, it took me longer to figure out how to write about myself in a way that didn’t feel corny. I think I’ve found a way, finally. Of course, it’s always hard to make high school seem cool in retrospect, but I write fiction, after all, not memoir, so I can fill in where life has dropped the ball. The novel I’m shopping around, “Warm Gun,” delves into the crazy fake-fame I sort of belly-tickled in High School. Small time, sort of small-townie fame. Cozy, you know?

I wish. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Practically metropolitan so long as you could get on the train. Could you tell us a bit more about “Warm Gun”? Great title, by the by.

 Thanks! it was shortened to “Warm Gun” from a longer and sillier title.

What was the first title?

“Happiness is a Warm (Yes it is!) Gun,” as per the line in the song by the Beatles.

Hah! I don’t know, I like both. “Warm Gun” seems a bit more serious, the latter more tongue in cheek.

Both humors apply I think, maybe more the tongue and the cheek one. So this Warm Gun: It’s an episodic portrait of a 21st century misfit. It begins on the banks of the Missouri River and ends on the shores of the Bosphorus. “Life begins on a riverbank (did somebody say that? No one said it. I say it!)… the river rises and washes us all away…” It’s a sad, funny, exciting tale of underground music, being an artist, having no money, traveling around, losing friends, sex. The usual. There is even some murder in there. Cute murder. Rather adorable murder.

What does adorable murder look like? Puppies with knives in their teeth?

THAT is cute! It does now! Just kidding–well, it does involve small animals, believe it or not. (Not viruses). Animals, yay! Animals, cute. Animals kept in a jar. Animals UNLEASHED!

Ah, the furry epidemic shall rise. So what is the state of underground music these days? Do you consider yourself a part of it?

Sadly I am not part of it right now. I was in LA, last year, for a while, and for a time in Massachusetts too. But not since I was in St. Louis have I been really a strong part of an underground scene. In college I was pretty active at this nonprofit music and arts venue, The Lemp Arts Center, where I learned a lot about art and aesthetics, and saw a lot of incredible bands that will never exist ever again. It’s the extinction of so many great bands, these flashes in the pan, which has left an impression on me.

From age fourteen to twenty-two I was pretty deep in the St. Louis scene. There was this exciting boom. Suddenly there were 100s—no joke—100s of local bands. And then, sometime around 2007, the number plummeted. Like the dinosaurs. A musical meteor hit St. Louis and wiped them out. Made all the bandies go to college or something. Move to Chicago. There’s still a scene in St. Louis, but I think, objectively, there are far fewer bands. I’m sure a local whippersnapper and I could have a heated discussion about it.

Tell us a bit about the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, and your role there as a student, or teacher?

I was definitely a student, but I also served on the Board of Directors when I was active (booking bands, playing shows, running shows, etc.). I got involved there initially when I booked my band there in 2004. The Lemp was and is the nicest venue in St. Louis. Their motto is “No Drugs, No Booze, No Jerks,” kind of a straight edge sort of thing, but they don’t profess as sXe; they simply don’t label one way or the other. Anyone is welcome, but smoking has to happen outside, or elsewhere. No booze makes it all-ages, and if you mosh mean, you get kicked out. These days they run Orchestrating Diversity, which (from their website) “empowers young people through the education and performance of orchestral music.” They’re doing well.

When I was there, aside from board meetings, I attended the Sunday seminars, which challenged us young artists to consider our art as a social tool. What social purpose has our art? Or, more simply, what is our art saying? Thinking about art like that, new ideas pop out, new meanings. I learned kind of quickly about some nefarious and embarrassing things some of my art/music was professing, believe you me.

Want to share one of those embarrassing things?

I was reading impressionistically in socialism and politics, utopia—those sorts of things. My lack of knowledge was manifesting as dogma, to put it simply. You know, ‘kill capitalists,’ that sort of thing. Simplistic, reductive. The big transformation comes with more consideration, more personal connection. Later I wrote this simple song called “Fall” that went: “I watch my friends fall / into life / and die / with the / fall.” A song about getting caught up in growing up. It sums up fears I had as a young person about aging, friendship, authenticity (as an artist/human being), staying “real.”

It sounds like your writing employs a mix of the awkwardness of adolescence, as well as factoring in major social upheavals and necessary social change – none of which seems to be capable without violence. Do you compress, say, High School and eugenics? Is that setting a Petri dish?

When you say “High School” you mean High School where kids go, right?

Huh, good point. Whatever you mean by high school.

Either way, I think. I love insecure and bizarre stories about kids, and also, in thinking of the literary high school, the canonical ‘high school,’ heh, I like the idea of inserting stomach-twisting ideas about eugenics, or feminist theory, or various sorts of Gazes, or inappropriate sex—general discomfort into the overly-comfortable world of the literary story. I think whichever way my stories go, there is (hopefully) some modicum of discomfort.

Who or what has been your creative influence?

So I got into short story writing by the German writer Judith Hermann. Before her I had no clue about short stories. I wrote almost no fiction in college until I discovered Hermann’s “Sommerhaus, Spater” [Summerhouse, Later] which I started in German and finished in English. Before that (in ‘High School’) it was mostly Vonnegut. And some Kevin J. Anderson. And Douglas Adams. Pretty basic stuff. In grad school I escaped with Richard Brautigan, Linh Dinh, Milan Kundera. And some heartbreaking historians like Fawn Brodie, Laurel Thatcher Ullrich, Darra Goldstein, Laura Lovett. I could add a dude, William Manchester, to that list as well. In Los Angeles I read almost nothing but literary journals (lots and lots) and Roberto Bolaño.

 Which literary journals are you reading now?

Redivider, Fence, Whole/Beast/Rag, Sein und Werden, Fourteen Hills, McSweeney’s, Gigantic Sequins… I tend to sample widely, buy a lot of single issues. Oh and I gotta say I discovered Amina Cain recently. She’s an amazing writer. She can duke it out with Rachel B. Glaser, another mad genius, for some obscure, unspecified writer’s prize. (These are compliments!).

You can follow Caleb True at Calebtrue.tumblr.com or on twitter @Calebjtrue

Why I'm Sick of Writers Or: (Lovingly) Calling “Bullshit” on Writer Culture

As a senior set to graduate in May of 2013, in the past few months, the most common question I receive is: are you applying to grad school? It’s a fair question to ask, considering a large percentage of my English/creative writing friends are applying, or planning to apply to a variety of schools all over the country. Though I’ve tossed around the prospect of an MFA since freshman year, my answer to this questions is always some variety of, “Not now, but maybe in a few years.” This decision took a long time, a lot of research and general soul-searching to make. However, this fall semester I came to the realization that cemented my decision to not pursue my MFA right now: I need to take some time off from writers. 

You gonna take time off of me?

Initially, when I typed that sentence, I wanted to say “undergraduate writers,” because I thought: “Hey, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe this is just one aspect of the ‘lost, confused, identity-crisis, annoying-as-hell twenty-something’ bubble that every undergraduate student at any university in any field of study experiences. Maybe I just need a break from undergraduate writers, not writers in general.” But I have a gut feeling, and this gut feeling, mingled with reports from friends who have attended or are achieving an MFA right now, reassures me that this is not an isolated undergraduate phenomenon. So, I can say, with confidence, that I need to take some time off from writers because, quite frankly, I’m sick of writers.

I’m sick of verbal acrobatics, both in conversation and on paper. I’m sick of sentences crammed with strategically obscure vocabulary in order to make the writer look smarter. I’m sick of hearing a haphazardly-written first draft of a short story called “postmodern.” I’m sick of holier-than-thou writers who know they are better than the writer they are workshopping and offer visibly half-hearted feedback as a result. I’m sick of the realization that all of “the best writers” in my classes wear the same kinds of shoes. I’m sick of the worship of famous writers (“all hail DFW – or David Foster Wallace for you Philistines!”) as tragic demigods who my fellow young writers claim they could never become and yet imitate constantly. I’m sick of every writer I know desiring fame, when in actuality, none of us, or at least very, very few of us, will achieve the kind of fame we dream of when we turn in our final drafts.

I’m calling bullshit, on all of it. I can no longer tolerate writers and their bullshit that has taken all the joy, truth, and beauty away from an art form I so dearly love. And since the bullshit is probably here to stay, considering it has only gotten worse the older I’ve grew, my best solution is to run for higher ground for the next five years or so, until I’ve recuperated enough to withstand another dose of bullshit. 

Yes.

Before I went to college, I knew I wanted to write, considering it was (and is) the only real talent I possess. But I heard that the worst thing you can do if you want to be a writer is study English or creative writing. Study something else, anything else, that interests you, I was told – biology, math, history, anything – and the knowledge you gain will inform and enrich your writing. For a long time, I planned to major in journalism, but I chickened out at last minute and chose English anyway. I don’t by any means consider it a mistake that I majored in English and creative writing. I’ve had too many inspiring teachers and non-bullshit writer peers to believe that. But I do think the advice I heard holds some weight. It’s not simply that studying something other than writing can enrich and inform your work – it’s that studying writing for so long and with so much depth inevitably distracts you from what writing should actually be about. Thus, the bullshit occurs.

Though I may be disenchanted with my fellow writers, the culprit is not only the bullshit, but (more importantly) the fact that the bullshit takes all of us farther and farther away from good storytelling. A non-writer friend who understands my frustration sent me this article the other night, and I loved it so much I read portions of it out loud to her and swooned as though the article was a love letter. It’s a letter/assignment from Kurt Vonnegut to his students at Iowa, asking that they read Masters of the Short Story, choose three stories they loved the most and three they loved the least, then write a report on each. In this report, they must pretend to be an editor at a journal where each story is up for publication, and they must write about which stories deserve publication. Vonnegut specifically instructs his students how to write these reports, and these instructions particularly struck a chord:

Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique.”

Not pretentious.

Sometimes, when I finish reading a story that leaves my mind empty or buzzing from the pretension, I’m tempted to simply write at the bottom of their draft: “Just tell me a story.” This is, at the heart, the purpose of writing. Don’t try to be an academic constantly drawing conclusions or parallels, or a wordsmith drunk on her own cleverness, or a jaded, seen-it-all barbarian desperately trying to write the one story he knows he hasn’t read yet. Don’t try to be anything else that will soil your identity, first and foremost, as a human being. Don’t even bother trying to be a writer. Just write. Just tell me a damn story.

An Attempt at a Definition of a "MFA Story"

What does it mean to say a manuscript is a “MFA story”?

This question comes from a tweet sent by Union Station, an online magazine based in Brooklyn. They actually phrased the question “MFA-styled,” so I’m adjusting the phrasing a bit, but it’s a really good question. I instantly had a few phrases that came to mind. I’m thinking only of fiction here, not poetry or nonfiction. These words and phrases include:

Strong Prose. This isn’t, obviously, a bad thing. Perhaps that’s what I’m starting with this one. Stories that have good rhythm, sentence variety, proper grammar and syntax (with the rules “broken” when needed), and a rich vocabulary suggest a writer who has spent time on his or her craft.

Static. This might be what is really meant by “MFA story”: the claim that “nothing happens.” The idea of a static story usually means the lack of an exterior plot because MFA programs, and writers from these programs, do their damnedest to avoid cinematic plots, turning away from guns and violence and melodrama for a stronger sense of a character’s interior life.

Case in point: In my MFA program, during our second year, our visiting professor gave us an article that involved (and I’m piecing this together from memory) a shooting. Something about, I think, a pizza delivery and a discovery of physical abuse, I’m fuzzy on the details, but there was a shooting and a killing. We were asked to write a short scene about this incident. Out of twelve students, only one of us wrote directly about the most dramatic moment: the killing. We just avoided it. Our professor was stunned by this. Why would we avoid the hard moment? Why would we avoid what is most dramatic?

Interior. MFA stories tend to focus on thought. No other art form can really get inside a character’s thoughts. Movies use voiceover, but that technique is hackneyed and lazy. The exploration of a character’s consciousness, all those messy thoughts, is a response, a moving away from cinema and television. There is so much “action” that seems devoid of any true emotion that it seems natural for a writer to focus on characterization in a way that is seen in literary writing.

Opaque. MFA stories seem to be pretty straight-forward. But more often than not, when reading a MFA story for a third or fourth time, editors will often wonder “What is this story actually about?” You’d be surprised how often the story’s purpose isn’t really clear. It’s usually a feeling that the writer is the one who isn’t quite sure. Either there is too much thrown in (and by this I mean possibilities or feelings, not events like car chases and crashing blimps and a talking sea lion battalion armed with flamethrowers)(digression: I’d like to read that sea lion story) or what is presented as the conflict is too weak and not truly explored.

Character Driven, Not Plot Driven. Those five words should be pretty clear. MFA stories can sometimes feel like character sketches more than stories.

To summarize, a MFA story is a well-written, character-driven story that is awfully interior, very little happens, and the ending feels like not much has happened.The question Union Station posed, though, has a pretty clear connotation: it’s negative. Not that Union Station is trying to be negative, but the phrasing, the actually saying that you have a “MFA story” is not considered a good thing.

Does this mean that Missouri Review, Union Station, and other journals won’t publish writing by MFA students? Of course not. Our track record, and the track record of many other fine journals, proves that very good stories are not just written and published by MFA graduates, but by emerging writers currently in MFA programs. I’d even say that the idea of a “MFA story” is probably a holdover from ten or fifteen years ago. Most emerging writers are savvier now.

But many of the techniques learned in the programs are just that: a series of tools, a series of styles, but the story will be, should be, greater than the sum of its parts. To extend the metaphor, all magazine publishers are looking for that magnificent and curious house, not the cookie cutters with the two-car garage wholly indistinguishable from the other homes in the development. We haven’t, won’ t, and will not disparage the programs. We just want to the houses that let us know—despite having walls and windows and roofs and gutters and all the other basic qualities—that we’ve set foot in place unlike any other.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

MFA Rankings Are Useless (Could They Be Useful?)

In late August, Poets & Writers, by far the most respected and well-known magazine in the writing and publishing world, released their September/October issue, ranking all the MFA and PhD creative writing programs in the country. It’s a monster issue filled with not just the rankings, but an explanation of the rankings, compendium articles, pithy quotes, and about seventy pages of advertising for those particular programs. It is probably the most widely read issue that PW has ever published.

It also caused over 200 writers and program directors, from those very same MFA programs that the issue is promoting, to publically denounce the ratings in an open letter to The New York Observer.

How an organization responds to criticism, especially such public criticism, says a lot about its relationship with its audience. The examples are endless, but just think about a recent one. Netflix announced a change in their fee structure, then apologized not for the change but how the change was announced, followed by an announcement that they are splitting into two companies, Netflix (streaming) and the poorly named Qwikster (DVD rentals), and then announced they weren’t splitting into two companies. Neither of these changes went particularly well. And say what you will about why Netflix is doing this (or how poorly their letter was written) but they have been upfront about the changes they are making and the reasoning behind it. And Netflix listened when their audience said “Hey, we hate this!”

How did PW respond to such open criticism? Five days later, PW fired back with an open letter of their own. You can read the letter here. Well, their letter gets off to a rough start:

We are disheartened to hear to have read the open letter written on behalf of creative writing teachers and program directors protesting our publishing the 2012 rankings of MFA and PhD programs.

“Disheartened”? Doesn’t sound like they are really open to these program directors, are they? This isn’t Netflix saying “I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation.” In fact, they aren’t:

While we readily consider reasoned criticisms of our work, we cannot in good conscience make editorial decisions in response to outside pressure from those groups and individuals who disagree with our coverage, much less those that threaten to withdraw advertising as a means of influencing editorial content. Our responsibility is to our readers. And we would hope that, as writers, our critics would understand and respect this obligation.

I’d like to think that as a graduate of a MFA program and an employee of a literary journal, I am one of PW’s readers. So too are the MFA students, graduates of those programs, creative writing professors, administrators, and novelists and poets and short story writers years removed from writing programs. All of us are PW’s readers. And we all disagree with how PW is representing MFA programs. Doesn’t PW’s response seem to be missing something? It feels like they are saying they only serve writers who don’t know any better about MFA programs.

Poets & Writers cannot obstinately reject any criticism of their work. They claim that they have a responsibility to their readers. Who are their readers? Because when PW ignores the directors of two hundred creative writing programs, and by extension, all the graduates of those programs and all those students currently in those programs, then I’m not sure who their audience is anymore. Unless they are targeting only those trying to get into MFA programs. People who, one might argue, are naïve and easily persuaded?

I’m being hyperbolic: I don’t really believe that Poets & Writers assumes their readers are ignorant and that they are simply bilking young, emerging writers into buying a magazine. But the tone of their open letter is pugnacious and obstinate. And they do have a conundrum on their hands, don’t they? After all, PW does want people to pick up their magazine, and, on the surface, those are people not yet in graduate programs. I can see why they view it through such a myopic lens.

Who is the audience for Poets & Writers? It’s actually a trickier question than you might think. This point was really hammered home in Julien Smith and Chris Brogan’s book “Trust Agents” when they discussed college websites. Take the University of Missouri’s website, just as an example. Who is the website for? It’s for prospective students. It’s also for current students. It’s also for faculty. It’s also for alumni. Donors. And more. And all of those groups want the website to deliver very different things. Really think about that for a second. It is an incredible challenge to try and make all these different groups happy. The same applies for our writing community, too.

Anyone that has looked at MFA programs online has discovered that college websites are a bit of a mess. Many creative writing programs don’t have very good websites. As an outsider, a person trying to determine what program is a good fit, these poor websites are infuriating. As an insider, I realize how hard it is to get changes when the creative writing department is just a small part (very small part) of a large state university.

So what can Poets & Writers do to make things better for their entire community?

Eliminate the rankings. Rankings of MFA programs are bad for everyone involved.

The rankings are the overwhelming concern, one that has been posted on numerous websites and stated by dozens of writers. PW can’t have a whole bunch of articles and essays saying “Don’t look at rankings” placed directly next to, I don’t know, the rankings? To continue the string of mediocre analogies in this letter and other blog posts on the topic, it’s like publishing swimsuit model calendars and it’s really important to remember the models are athletes and should not be objectified. Sure. Not based in reality, is it?

I swapped a few tweets with my friend Andrew Scott about PW’s MFA issue. I tweeted that we were still waiting for a response from PW—my god, in an information age, how could they wait five days before responding at all? Not even a “Hey, we hear you!” response—and Andrew pointed out that PW benefits from all this attention, positive or negative. I wrote that they should just ditch the rankings. Andrew replied that without the rankings, who cares: all the basic info is available for online. He also suggested that it would be far more useful for them to profile a handful of MFA students’ journeys each year.

Profiling MFA students for one year, or, maybe, for the entire two (or three, or four!) years a student is in the MFA program would be a terrific read. Imagine it: five students at five different programs. A mixture of demographics. Each student gets to blog, on PW’s site, about his/her experience in the program. PW doesn’t have to create the content—the student creates it for him or her. The student, likely unknown, has a built-in audience while working on his/her stories, poems, essays, novel, whatever. The program, which everyone gets picked, gets a ton of attention. Costs? Just the hosting space on PW’s site. It would send PW a ton of traffic. It also would provide a close look at what it would be like to be in a particular writing program. Easy to do, and useful, and insightful for everyone involved.

But I don’t think PW is worthless without the rankings. PW is the authority. Being on the site or in the magazine gives the information strength. But why can’t it work as an aggregator? Isn’t that, really, what Google does? Of course, I’m greatly oversimplifying what Google does. The information PW has needs to be accessible and easy to understand, especially when program websites can be difficult to navigate. Why the website? Because PW claims that is to expensive to list all the programs in their print edition.

Online, their Directory of Poets & Writers claims 9200 authors. How many do you think went through MFA programs? Let’s safely say one third and round down. 3000 authors. If PW asked what MFA program they went to, and then link the answer to the MFA programs page on PW’s site, and even said something like “Prospective students can contact you about the program?” that writers could opt-in or out of … well, isn’t that a ton of information that could really serve a prospective student? It looks like PW has half-heartedly started doing this – there are links to some writers on some of the program pages – but it is incomplete at best.

Also, it would help if there was a really good filter. Look at PW’s MFA Database: There are two filters: degree and state. Given how much data PW has collected, this is pretty useless. Click on the first program listed. That’s Abilene Christian University. Their posting has a website and a contact name. That’s it. Couldn’t that be a much more interesting and dynamic page? Of course it could!

This seems to be left up to the programs to add this information: I noticed that American University, Bowling Green State University, and Hollins (to just name three) have better pages, but they are still aren’t all that useful. Indiana University has a Lynda Hull Fellowship in Poetry. That sounds great. But it doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?

Here’s another excellent idea from the comments section of PW’s open letter. It’s posted by “Rachael C”:

I’d also remove numerical values in other parts of the rankings and simply use general categories, just as you do with other aspects like “program size.” For example, with funding, you could have “Excellent,” Good,” “Fair” and “Poor.” Or with selectivity, you could have “Extremely,” “Very,” “Moderately,” and so on. Basically, by removing the numerical values, you’d be removing the impression that there are enormous gaps between particular programs, while at the same time still providing applicants with the exact same information.

There isn’t one simple solution about how Poets & Writers can better serve the community. These three ideas – eliminate rankings, get current students to blog, a better and more informative web listing – are ideas that, frankly, might have more holes than Swiss cheese. They do, after all, still have a print publication to sell. As an organization, Poets & Writers has been around for forty years and done remarkable work, and their commitment to us – that’s all of us, all of us writers – has always been steadfast. So maybe changes are in the works and we just don’t know it: the next MFA issue is, presumably, a year away. I don’t know. What I do know is that many of us in the writing community are feeling shut out and ignored, and the stakes here are very high: getting emerging writers in the right place to work on their writing for two to three years. Let’s hope they hear us.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye 

The MFA Degree: A Bad Decision?

Last week in TMR’s first production meeting of the new semester, a first-semester intern asked about MFA programs and whether or not the University of Missouri has one (it does not). Even though the fall semester is just beginning, writers are already thinking about the January 1st deadline that most MFA programs have for receiving applications. Everyone, it seems, has MFA programs on the brain.

The latest issue of Poets & Writers is out now, and the cover image is thirty-one people of a wide-range of ages and ethnicities. Titled “MFA Nation” this special issue of PW is chock full of information about MFA programs: Seth Abramson’s yearly MFA ranking system, complete with an explanation of his methodology; articles on the social value of these programs and life as a writer post-MFA; wise quotes from program directors and working writers on what to consider when choosing a program; and probably fifty pages of ads from writing programs throughout the country. There is even a small section on writers who never pursued an MFA, a list that includes Jonathan Lethem and Elizabeth Strout, and writing workshops outside of traditional programs.

Five years ago, I earned my MFA, and have since taught undergraduate and graduate courses in creative writing. I don’t believe MFA programs are inherently evil and have destroyed contemporary American literature. The majority of people teaching and taking creative writing classes are all trying to do good things. Nonetheless, I’ve begun to wonder if the MFA is, in fact, a bad decision.

The explosion of MFA programs in the last thirty years coincides with something else from about the same time period: US News & World Report’s annual survey of “America’s Best Colleges.” This survey is one of the most popular, influential, and powerful publications that comes out of this country every year. This isn’t really a hyperbolic statement. Given how important college is now to, well, everyone, and how much parents get involved in the decisions of the lives of their eighteen-year-olds, and how much money flows into universities, and how surveys like US News “measure intangibles,” and how much is at stake for everyone involved when it comes to money, education (where do our top doctors and attorneys and engineers go?), and, consequently, our overall economy, the US News annual report on colleges might be the most important document of our generation.

(Which kinda blows your mind, if you think about it too hard …)

One of the things that the US News rankings does not consider is MFA programs in creative writing. It’s a pretty glaring omission for our world, an omission that Seth Abramson and Tom Kealey have been working to fill. Abramson, through both his blog and Poets & Writers, is the dominant name; Kealey made a name for himself by criticizing underfunded programs, Columbia’s specifically. These two, and others, have done a tremendous amount of work to peel back the layers of MFA programs and get applicants to make informed decision about their decision.

The similarity between the US News and PW is striking: collegiate ranking systems that determine which program is “best.” It certainly suggests that MFA programs are about something much more than just “time to write.”

I’m sure we all want to say that any MFA program is for those two or three years where an emerging writer gets to focus on his or her craft. The MFA program is an arts degree. Time off from the world to focus on writing. The intrinsic value beyond the page. Making better readers. Etc. Still, one of the results of all these MFA degrees are, like it or not, the creation of an army of people that are asked to teach low-levels of composition, rocking four or five or six classes per semester for adjunct pay.

 

This post is not attempting to argue, at all, the merits of the creative work or the intentions of students, teachers, and administrators. MFA programs are academic programs and are not particularly difficult to graduate from – one would have to screw up to a remarkable degree to not graduate from a MFA program once you’re accepted. The writing workshop is still the foundation of MFA programs, even if there are programs that are much more rigorous about teaching pedagogy, literature and linguistics courses, innovative publishing technology and techniques. And I’m sure there are people that pursue an MFA in order to be just straight-up writers, or work as a literary agent, or some other publishing venue.

But let’s not fool ourselves about where program graduates end up. We cannot stick our head in the sand about the reality of the post-MFA world. If programs are aiming to put their graduates at work in universities – and while there are, of course, exceptions, that is what the bulk of graduates are aiming to do and encouraged to do – then programs need to be more realistic about what exactly they are preparing their graduates for. What if programs honestly told students that if they want to teach at universities, that MFA graduates are a dime-a-dozen? If MFA graduates truly want to work in a university, what if programs stressed the importance of a rigorous education in literature and all it encompasses – critical theory, comprehensive exams, a dissertation the size of a dictionary? What if we honestly ask ourselves: what does this degree actually prepare our graduates to do?

For a writer with the goal of teaching at a university, even teaching creative writing, a MFA might be a lousy choice. Most find that what MFA programs are really good at (besides time out from the working world, of course) is providing deadlines: workshop due dates, thesis or dissertation defense dates, and so forth. And being a writer has to come from within, from a need to write, a need to finish projects, a need to revise until the work is right. People pursuing a MFA probably know both of these things already – what, then, does the degree itself provide? Creative writing is rarely lucrative, in and of itself. Advice on what to do would, as always, depend on the person I’m talking to but I’m no longer so sure of the MFA is the best answer. Nowadays there are so many newly minted MFA graduates – and more every year, growing, it seems, at an exponential rate – competing for jobs in a bad economy where one or two books (which is hard enough to do) simply isn’t enough.

If a writer feels an advanced degree is the way to go, the MA/PhD track, then, might be the wiser way to go. Does it take longer? Sure: but one shouldn’t be paying for a liberal arts degree anyway; funding should be one of, if not the most, important criteria. Further, it is terrific exposure for anyone to study literature in its entire range, rather than the narrower focus on the last forty years that MFA programs typically focus on. This is good not just as a writer, but as a scholar and thinker as well. It also prepares the writer to teach a wide-range of courses that makes one a much more attractive candidate for a tenure-track position.

There are many excellent professors, brand spankin’ new and decades old veterans, who hold only MFA degrees. One could absolutely be a terrific professor and a write a dozen wonderful books: they exist now and probably always will. But if asked, I’d suggest taking a long, hard look at pursuing a doctorate at a program like Florida State, the University of Cincinnati, or any of the other thirty departments that offer creative writing doctorates. It might be the wave the next great shift in creative writing programs, and isn’t it better to be ahead of that curve?

Correction: As my mentor Mary Troy points out in the comments section, the MFA is offered in the UM system, one at Missouri-St. Louis and one at Missouri-Kansas City. It is not offered at Missouri-Columbia, the main campus, where I work. (added Sept 1st)

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye

The Off Year (And, Just Maybe, A Few More)

With the semester coming to a close, one of the responsibilities of university faculty is to write letters of recommendation.  Over on the fabulous website, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, my old mentor Bill Roorbach has a new post up describing this period as “reference season.”  I have not had to write many of these letters, but of the ones I do, the majority are for students that are looking to enroll in MFA programs.  These are students that still have one semester left of their undergraduate studies, and they are pretty uncertain about what is going to happen next year.  Forget graduate school: with unemployment in double digits (don’t believe those “official” numbers), the big concern for about-to-graduates is earning a living and finding a way to not move back in with their parents.

This is not to say that students that have come to me about enrolling in MFA programs are half-assing it.  They aren’t.  They all are committed to writing, work on their stories and poems on the weekends when their friends are out drinking, read voraciously, and are involved in their undergraduate writing programs.  And they’re ready to continue that process.

So, they are a little disheartened when I suggest they not immediately go to grad school.

When I was an undergraduate at Ohio State, I decided I wanted to be a writer.  I had no idea what this involved.  I signed up for an Intro to Fiction Writing class during my junior year, and decided that writing stories and reading books (read: English major) was a pretty awesome way to finish college.  When I graduated, I had never written a resume or gone to a job fair or been on an interview for a corporate or non-profit position.  This didn’t worry me in the least; I never thought about any of this, so how I could worry?  I was going to graduate school and I was going to be a writer.

Of course, I had no idea what this actually involved.

I went to my writing teachers and asked two things: what did you do and what should I do?  Lee Abbott, who worked for Home Depot and got married before going to an MFA program, said I shouldn’t go yet.  The aforementioned Bill Roorbach, who played rock and traveled Europe for a decade and then came back to the States and worked as a plumber, said I shouldn’t go yet.  Stephanie Grant, who did go straight to graduate school, said I shouldn’t go yet.  Melanie Rae Thon, who also went straight to graduate school, said I shouldn’t go yet.  Do something else, they said.  Live a little.

They didn’t mean to, but I felt, of course, insulted.  Didn’t they see that?  Twenty one years old, sitting in their offices, I felt like they didn’t take my desire to write seriously.  I felt they didn’t understand how important this was to me.  I applied to graduate school.  I got rejected by every single one.  I moved to Vermont with some idea of living somewhere gorgeous, working as a bartender at night, a writer by day.

And then I wrote virtually nothing for the next three years.

I’m exaggerating, but not by much. I revised my best story from undergraduate, a story that I have no memory of. I probably wrote two stories during those three years, both of which became my writing sample when I went to graduate school in 2003. Nothing about my life resembled being a writer; I wouldn’t even say I read much. I spent three years in Boston (digression: moving to Burlington, Vermont with no plan is, simply, a really bad idea; I moved to Boston in less than three months) and during that time, I went to zero readings, read no literary journals, rarely bought new books, and didn’t meet any writers. My last year in Boston, I lived in a house with a small nook on the second floor, just big enough for a desk and a bookshelf. It even had a window with a good view of a city park.  Down the street—literally a hundred yards away—was the public library.

I didn’t write at all.

What did happen? I got a job with a mutual fund company and worked forty hours a week.  I interviewed, got promoted, got a raise, got stuck in traffic. I received my first paycheck where the taxation was in triple digits. I moved three times. I went to the gym after work to lift weights and play basketball; I became a Celtics fan. I went to a lot of weddings, and every six weeks or so drove down to New Jersey to visit my family. I hung out with my best friend, who had also moved to Boston after he graduated Ohio State. I bought a car, maxed out a credit card. I watched a ton o’ movies. I dated, fell in love, broke up and got back together (mix, stir, serve, repeat!). I took all Sunday afternoon to read the paper. I drank coffee, went to bars, suffered brutal hangovers.

I can’t say that any of this improved my writing or made me a better person. I felt no despair or regret about my time in Boston. Within the first six months I lived there, Boston felt like home; it is a city that left an imprint on me in a way that no other city has. Further, I can’t say I figured anything out that was especially earth-shattering. There was nothing wrong with my life or the direction it was going back in 2003. There is nothing wrong with working and raising a family. People that say otherwise are the ones that write “MFA novels” and are pretentious and have spent their entire lives in academia and have no heart; their disdain drips from their stories. To paraphrase Zadie Smith, you have to be a better person to be a better writer. But I did figure this out: for me, and me only, this wasn’t the life I was going to live.

 

I don’t remember being scared, by any means, but I did figure out that the finance sector wasn’t for me. And though I wasn’t really working on it, I loved to write, I loved to read, and I could somehow, in some way, make a life out of that. So I did.

I can’t tell you what life in Boston did for me or why it pushed me in the direction it did. Perhaps I’m just refusing to figure it out (or refusing to divulge it) but I like a little bit of mystery about my life. I have no memory of signing up for my first creative writing class, no recollection of a feeling that it was a good idea.

I think the time off between undergraduate and graduate school is invaluable, and yet I don’t know how to explain this to an eager and determined young writer. I don’t know how to emphasize its importance, what it is that I can point to, like a craft element in a story, to show a college senior why the time away from school will improve you as a person, as a reader, as a writer, without sounding patronizing.

Here’s the another thing, just a little bit down the life-of-a-writer spectrum: a MFA program doesn’t make you a writer. I believed and understood what it meant to write not in graduate school, but after. I felt like a writer when I went through eight agonizing drafts of a story, one that I came back to again and again, changing point of view and setting and language and details and narration, working on it every morning until it was right. It wasn’t written for workshop. I figured it out on my own. This happened about a year after graduate school. The MFA is no coronation; graduation from a writing program is just a beginning, not an end (not even friggin’ close).

So. To all you graduating seniors, if you really and truly want to know what I think, it is this: take the year off. Take two. Take three. Take a decade. You’ll write. Or you won’t.  Or you’ll come back to it. Or you’ll find that you want to do something else entirely. You’ve been in school your entire life: get out of it for a while. I believe it will do you a tremendous amount of good.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.

Your Audience Does Not Exist

Last week, Chad Harbach of N+1, a literary magazine based in New York, posted an excerpt of his forthcoming essay. Harbach’s excerpt, posted on Slate, posits the provocative suggestion that contemporary prose writers have two publishing options: MFA or NYC.  The former is the university circuit which has a heavy focus on the short story, and an emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism that one would expect to find in academia. The latter is the New York publishing world of big social realist novels of middlebrow art, written mostly by older white males, with a production philosophy similar to the Hollywood blockbuster.  I am paraphrasing a bit (a lot?) but it’s a fascinating article because, unlike most discussions of MFA programs and publishing, it is rational, thoughtful, curious, and engaging.

Recently, our blog discussed why MFA programs struggle to teach good novel writing, and Harbach’s article has expanded the discussion to examine the “systems” that create novels, and makes two distinct classifications.  Naturally, as with any “either/or” choice, this is a little reductive and there are natural outliers that will spring to your mind.  That’s okay.  The premise, though, seems relatively sound, if a bit simplistic.  The article nods to the excellent book by Mark McGurl that examines the “program era” of fiction writing.  McGurl’s book—which you should read if you haven’t already—narrows things down significantly in order to explore the influence of programs; McGurl examines only American fiction in the academy after World War II.  Most criticism of McGurl’s book often ignores this, which McGurl states clearly in his epilogue.

Anyway, the point is that when Harbach, McGurl, and others try to identify what is happening in contemporary literature, there is a quick and enraged group of voices who are incensed that they aren’t writing a withering attack on writing programs (see: Shivani, Anis).  Harbach and McGurl are not, though, interested in taking polemic sides.  Rather, they are simply trying to identify what they see and say “Isn’t that interesting?”

Okay, sure.  But it needs more than that.  Now that we’ve identified this distinction, what does it mean?

Let’s stick with that pretty simple “either/or” and say that there are two groups of people that are interested in this: readers and writers.

One of my good friends recently wrote me and explained her interest in writing a “young adult” novel.  I’m a bit of an elitist, and I think she was just making sure I wouldn’t fold my arms and look down my nose in disdain at her.  Of course I wouldn’t: she’s an awesome writer, a dear friend, and we have to write the stories we are compelled to write.  But here’s the thing that puzzles me about YA—or any other genre of fiction, even any category of books—that doesn’t seem to get discussed much: I don’t know if people read only one category of writing.

That’s probably not entirely true.  Market research indicates that people that buy one self-help book tend to buy many more self-help books.  They are hooked.  Certainly, some readers devour all of Elmore Leonard or lots of crime fiction or whatever.  Most readers I know, however, are diverse.  The categories that publishing house or bookstores put on books doesn’t really matter to readers: we want to read good work, we want to read often, and we tend to resist being told what to read.  We—the modern reader, the person who not only does still read, but reads widely—doesn’t really care what tags we put on things.

Did this book come out on Knopf?  Random House?  Akashic?  Dzanc?  Flatman Crooked?  I’m suggesting the modern reader doesn’t really care.  This conversation, MFA or NYC, doesn’t matter to a reader in the least.  Thanks to the internet, it’s pretty easy to find unusual or strange or off-beat titles: the long tail of publishing means nothing is out of print or inaccessible.  Harbach’s article isn’t really for readers.  It’s for writers and reaching an audience.

Am I obsessed with the idea of audience?  It seems to me that if you are creating art, whatever your medium is, you must have an audience in mind.  We don’t create art solely for our own satisfaction; that strikes me as solipsistic and narcissistic, and good art communicates (unless you want to say you are communicating with yourself, but you know, that’s the kind of circular late-night bar argument that gives me a whiskey headache, and makes me close my tab and head home earlier than I’d like).

What Harbach is pointing out then is that as a prose writer, you have a choice.  To me, he doesn’t present a very compelling choice: the NYC option seems to be pretty rough unless you have an AARP card and plan on writing a very particular novel.  One of the elements that Harbach generally ignores, genre fiction, strikes me as having a similar if less explicit problem: by tagging yourself a particular genre, you have to give yourself over to particular conventions and techniques (“tricks”?) that are expected of your predetermined style of choice.

The question of audience seems to be a problem particular to the novelist.  Poets and short story writers live in a vacuum (I know, I know; but c’mon, this needs to be a short-ish post, okay?) that novelists do not.  The novel is a choice implicitly accepting the constraints of audience.

And yet, as a writer, I think perhaps the best approach is to ignore audience.

For those of you who know me well, you are probably laughing and shaking your head.  I think way too hard about everything.  Everything!  And the idea that I would suggest a “Don’t worry, be happy” attitude (digression for Marc McKee: “…was the number one jam/Damned if I said you could slap me right here!”) towards your audience seems as out of character as I could possibly get.  I won’t disagree.

But writing is often about paradoxes.  Take a real basic one: we all want to be happy, but when it comes to fiction, we don’t want to read about happiness.  We want drama, in whatever capacity the writer presents it, because only trouble is interesting.  Happy in life, miserable on the page.  That’s weird, right?  Hey, that’s being human.  And, maybe, being a writer.

Thinking about audience, or what publishing market or house or category your work fits in, can become paralyzing.  It’s like muscle memory in sports: you do the same thing over and over again, painstakingly working on the mechanics of a movement—jump shot, backstroke, whatever—until you aren’t thinking about it at all.  Same thing here.  You read and read and read, digesting all those novels, stories, poems, and essays, until your sense of audience is second nature, a thing that you respond to subconsciously.

The audience will be there for good work.  I really believe that.  Hold those two opposing ideas in your mind—who is my audience, there is no audience—and you might discover something freeing about letting it all go.  A little touchy-feely?  Yeah, maybe.  But those of who rage against the dying light are, I think, in the end, optimistic.  We think it matters.  And what publishing house, academic machine, or cultural critic can really tell us otherwise?

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.