Post MFA Let-down?

“We live in an exceedingly crass, stupid, vulgar culture,” said [David]Fenza, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and author of “The Interlude,” a book- length poem. “To devote two years of your life to writing, books, studying authors, that is a wonderful oasis in anyone’s life. You take that study of literature with you through the rest of your life.”

81% of all Americans say that they have a book in them. I read this wee factlet in this morning’s Chronicle, in an article written from the perspective of one who has gone the MFA route. What does this prove? Not much – except that there are more of us with something to say (and sometimes no real skill to say it) than we’d maybe assumed. Can everyone write the book that is within them? Should they? Will an MFA really help?

In the past few years, more and more people have gotten involved with MFA programs, which should be a positive thing, yet the tone of this article was fairly depressing for me. Not because there are so many would-be writers in the U.S., or even so many degreed writers, but because, even while I was in grad school, I heard this stuff. I heard about MFA programs churning out cookie-cutter authors who depleted the very quality of the literary offerings in the world. I heard that only certain types of work got published, and if my name wasn’t something cool like Michelene, Ayelet, or I if I didn’t have some kind of unexplored ethnic angle to work with, or I wasn’t up to putting out an Astonishing Work of Languishing Genius or something, I wasn’t going to make the cut.

Workshops, I read, are worthless. They’re boring. They slice and dice the work of others as if critical interpretation and criticism was all that made a mature writer. Workshops create writers who pander to their readers, I learned. Not good. Not workable. Not promising. Much better are the writers who organically ply their craft, right out of their wee heads. Those are the writers who will uphold the invisible Canon Nouveau, and make sure that everything we read is intelligent and worthy.

Good thing I only really want to write for children and young adults, I thought. That field is always open. Or not. When everyone from Toni Morrison to Madonna to John Lithgow and everybody else hit the shelves with their celebrity children’s stories, I… um, rethought. It wasn’t going to be that easy to do the kind of writing I wanted and get published. Not by a long shot. Like everyone has to sometime, I faced the fact that there are tons of people who are better connected, better equipped, and just downright luckier than I am. And I thought, dear God, what money and time have I just wasted!?

Truth: We spent a lot of money for our degrees. $37K down, and we’ve got not a lot to show for it except a few letters to put after our names, which, even then, doesn’t guarantee that our work will get any higher in the slush piles of publishing houses. We have a lot of faith, and a lot of great expectations, but what else?

Truth: We have allowed our work and our style of writing to be observed, commented upon, molded and shaped. In all likelihood, some of us have learned to care too much about what others say about our work. Some of us have begun to consider the reader. Does this mean our writing is doomed?

I left my MFA program at Mills with nothing but great expectations. They made me no promises, and I was well aware that they couldn’t make me anything I wasn’t before I got there. But… in order to have gotten to there, I had to have had great expectations already. If I take that faith (and those school loans) and turn it upon myself, I might yet have a chance to stand out – if merely by sheer dint of perseverance. I know an MFA program can’t produce a writer, yet I also realize that giving myself over to the process of observing and immersing myself in writing and reading gives me an edge. I know a lot more stuff than the average writer at a Conference like A. Fortis attended – how to use networking, how to listen to what editors really want, how to sense the patterns created and skill used in what I read. I’ve put in the time, in a wildly busy and rushed world, to polish my craft into something I can honestly be proud of (okay, on those good days when I’m not sucking down my Zoloft and staring moodily into my coffee cup), if I can stick out the hard work it takes to get it noticed. I can take a breath and accept that I put in a big investment in myself, and it already has paid off – the dividends being my writing group, the person I become in an educational environment, and the objective eye that I can turn on my own work.

Success will come in a more tangible form, someday. And, lest these ramblings sound too painfully Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm saccharine, I do have to lie down and scream sometimes; I often wish for something stronger than caffeine on those many bad days; I awaken some mornings and think the whole publishing racket just sucks, and that I hate everyone in New York who works in publishing and wish it was all so much more straightforward — and for goodness sakes, faster at least, and less elitist and snotty. But, like A.F., I’m going to let this hone my competitive edge. I’m going to have to succeed. Because otherwise I’ll never know. What that book within me is, I mean. Maybe not everyone can or should write their dream story, but I can, and I’m going to. I mean to find out if the book within me is The Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Once and Future King. It’s why I went to graduate school…

Summer Reads: Summer Jobs

NPR’s had a piece this weekend on the great books of summer leading teen girls to believe in the great JOBS of summer. Good old Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and most daring of all Vicki Barr, Flight Stewardess (boy, I must’ve missed that one) had the best darned jobs of any young women of the era between 1947-1964… They had glamour, great uniforms, sassy flips in their hair, and no flack from their bosses. These days, the best teen readers can do for a summer job is something like M.T. Anderson’s Burger Wuss, an affectionate and sardonic tribute to the reality of the scorching summer days of doing mindless dead end work so you could buy a few things from the Gap. (Someday, there’s going to be a novel on the people who did filing for Traveler’s Insurance as a summer job… I’m sure I’ll be somewhere on Chapter 2, sneaking out to make phone calls and loitering around the snack machine…)

Meanwhile, we await with baited breath the news from the L.A. Conference, and our intrepid attendees who will give us all the lowdown hopefully soon. Enjoy the last few days of low-traffic summer days… happy August.

The Game of a Lifetime

I was reading this MIT paper on construction and reconstruction of the self in virtual reality and I kind of realized that, in a way, that’s a lot of what writing is for a lot of us — a chance to reinvent ourselves endlessly and sometimes repetitively in the wider boundaries of another realm. On paper, we give ourselves a chance to encounter the decisions we could not make in our present realities, we force ourselves to confront the villain, the bully, the snob, the jock, the fathers, our alters, and replay scenarios where we end up better off, worse than, different. We race down the hallways of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, make tracks through our heads, and rattle every doorknob to see how things will end.

I’ve always had the idea that it would be an even better game to make up clue cards listing made-up towns, include a sketched map of the city centers of these towns, including public schools, private schools, churches, malls and hospitals, add a couple of random families listed by street, and then put them all in a box, and have a group of YA writers blindly choose a town, then from another box a topic (for instance race, gender, family structure, marriage, etc. – really broad topics), and then roll a die to a gender identity – GLBT – or a race – or a sex. Then, each writer would have a weekend to come up with a short story based on the town selected. In the end, the best stories could be polished up and pulled together to form some kind of linked cycle.

That would be so way cooler than role playing. I’ll reconstruct my identity on paper anyday.

Magic of All Kinds

Yes, I know it’s the big weekend for Harry Potter fans, but before we get to that, first I have to say that the NPR “All Things Considered” update of the story of Owen and Mzee, the baby hippo tsunami refugee who became the foster child of a giant tortoise, is a kind of magic all its own. Of course there’s a children’s book in the works! Props to NPR for the sneak peek.

Meanwhile, we’re still wild about Harry! A few cities actually proclaimed an All Potters Eve, and I’m glad to see it wasn’t just the adults having fun. I sincerely hope this next book is worth the wait, worth the hype, though I have my doubts about that, from the sort of whinging and hand-wringing that went on in the last episode. I do, however, send good wishes to JK Rowling… and I really hope she’s well on her way to fabricating another universe, and another set of lovable characters, because boy this series is going to be a hard act to follow! On the other hand, she certainly will have an eager (to make more cash) agent and loyal readers waiting to pick up whatever falls from her pen…

So, good reading to those of you who went right out and got Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, camped out for the midnight book release, dressed in your Hogwart’s Academy best, and partied like it was …Book VI. I was with you in spirit, though I was far too lazy to get out of bed and ride my broom. However, for my next ‘pay it forward’ mitzvah activity of the year, the plan is to buy a couple of books, read them, and donate them to the public library in the next few weeks – so no spoilers, people.

In many ways, the Harry Hype is overrated, overdone, commercial, Madison Avenue derived crap, and is not even about the book, (or at least not about the writing or the storyline) anymore at all. On the other hand, when was the last time people got this excited about reading — even reading an imperfect series of books? Back when Tolkien was writing, or when The Narnia Chronicles came out, I hear. So, it’s been awhile… Even though I think sometimes the storyline is plodding, and that editing these tomes might do them (and us!) a world of good, I love the excitement of a new link in the saga. It’s so cool to read. And to all the people who bought me books that fed my imagination when I was a kid – then or now, “I can no other answer make, but thanks, and thanks, and ever, thanks.”

The 4th of July (also known as Chinese Pyrotechnology Appreciation Day) is over, and now we’re sitting down all too early with afterimages of fireworks burned on our retinas. Well, the happy consolations for the writer are thus: SmartWriter’s 2005 Write It Now Contest has announced its winners — and, in a burst of ubercool, has announced a short story contest as well. The rules are posted on the SmartWriters website, and read them carefully, possums.

The Writer’s Digest is pulling out a new short story contest, the WD Popular Fiction Awards. Um, so “popular fiction.” The antithesis, I guess, of literary fiction? Anyway, they’re looking at five categories: Romance, Mystery/Crime Fiction, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Thriller/Suspense and Horror. The Grand-Prize Winner will receive $2,500 clams, $100 worth of Writer’s Digest books and paraphenalia, plus a manuscript critique and marketing advice from a Writer’s Digest editor or advisory board member. Everyone who places gets a mention in Writer’s Digest magazine, which is a good way to get your name out there to sharp editorial assistants. The deadline is a reasonable distance away, and the fee isn’t expensive, either, which is always good to hear.

Meanwhile, the Fiction Open at our dearly beloved Glimmer Train Press has a July 15 deadline, so there’s still time to enter that fabulous story you know is within you. Courage, dear ones. Crank up the a/c, and once more into the breach!

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

I know she’s not a YA writer, but I felt a pang of sympathy on reading her story anyway, even though her books make me kind of roll my eyes… ‘Tis a wicked risk to splash your real life onto the fiction page as an adult – so much better to stick to celebrating and reviling your teen aged peers when in all likelihood they’re all too involved with their 2.5 kids and their careers to run up against your old crushes or your bitter little diatribes against their long vanished selves… This week, well known Bay Area writer Terry McMillan’s number came up on the divorce court docket. Reported in this morning’s Chronicle is the real end of How Stella Got Her Groove Backlooks like the truth is…she didn’t.

Meanwhile, her ex-husband is accusing her of being an “angry woman…” did he not see that bit in the movie version of Waiting to Exhale when a cheating husband’s car is set on fire!? Um, hello? Consider the source?

Hopefully another blockbuster will be aspirin for the ache; a new novel for McMillan is due out in July.

When did you know you were a writer?

Reading the SF Chron this morning, I came across a crystalline description of the moment it comes together – the moment that you know that you want to be a writer; when the world is somewhat of a formless blur around you, and you find yourself groping inarticulately, but you know that if you could just get a grip, just find handholds somewhere, you can spin that sphere in the direction you need it to go.

This gem is from Alicia Parlette, and I urge you to read the entire piece because it’s important and focused writing, and it will no doubt impress you like it did me, and make you briefly jealous and aware of a shapeless longing to push more deeply into your own undiscovered boundaries of your art. I hope to have my thoughts, much less my writing, someday distilled in this way — but Parlette’s depth and skill are so much more immediate than simply wanting to hone her craft. Parlette wields her metaphorical pen like a scalpel because she is 23, and has learned she has cancer.

When the doctor came in, I started focusing on the room. The mauve curtain. The computer in the corner. The crunchiness of my gown. He sat there calculating how rare my cancer was (“Let’s see … uh … huh … 1 percent of … right … and … well … 1 in 50 million, maybe?”) and the limited options I had (“We usually don’t use chemotherapy because it doesn’t work, but you’ll have to talk to someone else about that”), and I felt myself weaving in and out of panic. One second I felt like I was going to pass out; the next, I focused on his gray-blue tie. The details seemed increasingly important.

I was set up to see other doctors and with a plan to meet again, but no treatment. No concrete options. I noticed myself stepping back and thinking of it as a play, not my life. This was too horrific to be my life.

As I sat there, I could feel myself detach. And in that moment I thought, “What a great story this will make.”
That’s when I knew I was a writer. When things were more frightening than I could ever imagine and my tiny little existence was spinning and careening out of control, my first reaction was to think about recasting it as a drama, as a struggle, as a way to share my little existence that didn’t seem so little anymore.

I am still in awe of the way life’s puzzles fall into place. I think this is because, right now, God is giving me a bigger look at how the jigsaw is mapped out. Not much bigger, but big enough for me to see that even tragedies are linked with blessings, and that among my many blessings is the chance to write my story. Right at the time when my world is upended – and right at a time when I’m aching to be more creative, to find an outlet, to finally write – God practically drops this opportunity in my lap.

If I get through this, this story will help me remember the important moments along the way, the details, the dizzying emotions. And, in the worst of all circumstances, if I go through this life-changing ordeal and my body just wears out and I die, I will die a writer. The one thing I’ve always wanted to be.

Read the whole piece. You’ll find that Parlette is young, maybe idealistic, but a beginning writer who looks steadily at her world, and who writes it true. Then go forth to your world and look at it with new eyes. You’ll find your handholds. Give that world a whirl, and watch it spin.

Well, if we're going to talk the talk…

…I suppose it means we have to walk the walk. Translation: It’s time again to try and submit — AGAIN — something for the Glimmer Train’s short fiction contest. The deadline is the 31st… I’ve submitted so many stories to them in the last couple of years that I’m beginning to doubt that they actually read them! I suppose I haven’t much else to lose but my sanity, and that’s an arguable possession anyway. I really do love the magazine, I’m just not sure I can actually write a.) short/flash fiction b.) anything really readable for adults. You people with your Tin House contacts and actual adult street cred will have to show me the way. Meantime, I’m trying to make sense of a story I dreamed – something to do with outdoor showers, laundromats, the smell of Tide, and seagulls. Summer camp in my subconscious.


Well, if we’re going to talk the talk…

…I suppose it means we have to walk the walk. Translation: It’s time again to try and submit — AGAIN — something for the Glimmer Train’s short fiction contest. The deadline is the 31st… I’ve submitted so many stories to them in the last couple of years that I’m beginning to doubt that they actually read them! I suppose I haven’t much else to lose but my sanity, and that’s an arguable possession anyway. I really do love the magazine, I’m just not sure I can actually write a.) short/flash fiction b.) anything really readable for adults. You people with your Tin House contacts and actual adult street cred will have to show me the way. Meantime, I’m trying to make sense of a story I dreamed – something to do with outdoor showers, laundromats, the smell of Tide, and seagulls. Summer camp in my subconscious.