Monthly Archives: February 2013
I am trying to make this shift from mostly working on poetry to mostly working on prose memoir. I am doing this in recognition of the fact that I’ve decided what I want my focus in grad school to be, which means making sure I have a solid portfolio of prose by October or November, when I will start putting the finishing touches on my grad school application. I am not giving up on poetry. I will continue to write it and submit. But, as a focus for grad school, poetry doesn’t really fit my goals.
One struggle I am encountering is that, when I hop in the wayback machine to mine material for my writing, I keep going back to the same period in my life, ages 6 to about 10. There are some reasons why it makes for good material. That period of my life was both dramatic and bizarre, filled with mental snapshots of extreme sorrow and extreme violence. Basically, it provides the heightened action and raised stakes necessary for a good plot. In so much of my later life, the drama is much more deeply psychological. Nothing will kill a story faster than sitting inside a character’s head the whole time.
I certainly want to write about more than just my childhood, but I’m really going to have to push myself as a writer to raise the stakes and provide the action for later episodes in my life. But if I can’t push myself, I really have no business writing. So push I must.
I find myself in a dilemma. One of the goals of my blog is provide some insights into my experience of trying to go into a creative-writing MFA program. It would follow that I would post about the specific schools I am considering. However, it occurs to me that it might not be in my best interest to be too public about who I am considering. I think about this only because it feels like blogging openly about looking for a job. Potential employers may be turned off by seeing who they are competing against–or that they’re even competing against anyone.
I have just joined a Facebook group in which we are helping each other in this process, and we talk about specific schools a lot. However, I would like my blog to become a resource on this subject, as well. I think I will need some guidance to determine how much about my “top-secret list” I should divulge here.
Today was also a splurge day. I took my self to Magers & Quinn, a local bookstore. They keep racks of deeply discounted books outside the store. I can pick up five or ten books for under ten bucks. Today’s selection forced me to hold myself back. I don’t have much money, and so I try to only splurge this way once every couple of months. (Besides, I have run out of bookshelf space.) Amongst my book purchases today were:
by David Guterson
Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful by Alan Paton
As well as some lesser-known novels that looked appealing, and some short-story collections.
You would think, with my book-buying habits and my overflowing bookcase, that I am a voracious reader. Alas, I am not, but it is not for lack of desire or effort. My trouble is that I am a slow reader. I never knew that I was a slow reader until a year or two ago. There was some online test making the rounds that determined your reading speed and comprehension. Most of my friends read at the rate of a sophomore in college. I read at the rate of an eighth grader. My greatest salvation was that I did not finish my philosophy degree and move on to a philosophy PhD. Had I done so, I would have drowned in my very first week, as a philosophy grad student typically reads about 1,000 pages a week of the densest, most challenging and difficult material you can imagine.
All of this brings up three questions:
Why am I such a slow reader? I know exactly what the problem is. I know that fast readers have developed their reading skills past the point where they are narrating the text to themselves inside their heads. They absorb content without necessarily reading every single word. They are master skimmers, and have great retention in doing so. I never got to that level.
Why don’t I work to improve my reading speed? It’s simply because I enjoy my inner narrator. I like playing a book in my mind as if it were a movie. I like assigning voices to the characters. I love luxuriating in detail. I could learn to read faster, with effort and guidance, but I think reading would be less enjoyable, and to be robbed of the joy of reading…. I can’t even imagine.
There is a price I pay for my slower reading rate, of course: I can’t possibly read everything I want to. I accumulate more books than I’m ever going to be able to read.
Why am I collecting books I’m never going to read? When I purchase a book, I have no idea for certain whether it is a book I will ever read or not. I purchase based on whether I am likely to read a book. I am also focusing more on obtaining books that will help me in my career. My gigantic volume of the complete works of Shakespeare? I’m never going to read that cover-to-cover, but it will be invaluable once I am teaching lit classes. Plus, I got it at the annual book swap my friends and I have, so I didn’t even have to pay for it.
There is also, though, a deeper and more personal reason why I have all the books I do. I have lost my entire personal library at least three times in my life. This was owing to difficult situations, both mine and those close to me. I’ve had my entire library end up in the landfill before. Every time I lost my library, I grew more tenacious in holding on to the books I had.
The funny this is that, unless I end up at the(oops, did I tip my hand there?), I will be giving away a chunk of my library. Even if I take advantage of book-rate shipping, I will not be able to keep them all. But, as I alluded to earlier, I don’t yet know what I will keep and what I will give away (no way is anything going into the landfill this time). But I am grateful for all I have, and read as much as I can when I can.
The past few weeks, I have been wrestling with an important decision: whether to focus on creative nonfiction or poetry for my graduate work. In nearly all writing MFA programs, a student must choose well in advance–during the application process–what their focus will be. I have been thinking long and hard, and realizing that creative nonfiction is likely the best choice for me.
Creative nonfiction is not as common in writing programs as fiction or poetry. When I add in my strong desire to incorporate playwriting into my studies, then the list shrinks even further. Right now, I have eight schools on my list that fit those priorities, and that are also in locations in which I could reasonably live. Climate (for health reasons) and city size (for logistics) are my primary considerations for livability.
The trouble that I am running into as I develop my writing is knowing what should go into an MFA application portfolio for creative nonfiction. I have to assume it is more than just memoir. I assume that personal essays fit the bill, though I have not done much along those lines. Does literary critique–or any other sort of critique–work for the portfolio? Are there any other subgenres that I’m just flaking on?
If anyone has advice on this subject, I would greatly appreciate it.
Another one of the debates that I forgot to post yesterday regards age:
“The top programs are only interested in students who are younger, in their twenties, because they’re seen as more malleable.”
“But I started my MFA at a top school when I was well into my forties.”
So it’s another thing that I have to go with my gut on.
Some think I’m on a fool’s errand going into writing degrees at my age. They think I should go into STEM fields, since that is what is needed and therefore have better chances at earning a good living. But I think that it would be a fool’s errand going into fields in which I have proved that I have zero aptitude no matter how hard I work in them. I think it’s a fool’s errand to assume I am going to be able to amass considerable wealth in what years I have left–that is best left to those who have a twenty-year head start. Plus, I think that the recession proved how reliable conventional wisdom is–look at all the people who bought houses because they were an “investment.”
I lost nearly two decades of my life. I spent the first decade in ex-gay “therapy.” When you are given an impossible goal, and are told that that goal is the most important thing in life, everything else–education, career, relationships–ends up on the back burner, and because you’re investing all your effort into doing the impossible, you get nowhere. You are frozen. Everyone else around you is moving forward with their lives–finishing school, getting married, starting families–whilst you remain a teenager.
The past decade has been spent undoing the damage of the first decade. It meant working with real, actual, licensed, trained therapists, rather than just going to anyone with an ichthus on their shingle. It meant years thinking hard on who I am, what the world is, what is necessary, and what I want. It meant playing catchup with my peers, some of whom are at the leading edge of grandparenthood, whilst I am still seeking a BA and am still extremely single.
They call this phenomenon of being out of synch with your peers “developmental dyssynchrony,” and it’s where I live my life. I think I’ve made great strides in the past years to approach where my peers are, but I’m not there yet.
At the conference this weekend, I ended up spending more time talking with the authors and presenters than with the students who dominated the audiences, because we discovered that we are all almost exactly the same age. Spending time with them gave me a glimpse into my life five or ten years from now. Hopefully five. I want to keep closing that gap.
I have a history of not listening to my gut, and it has always got me into big trouble. Listening to everyone around me except my own heart has put me in the wrong colleges, the wrong majors, the wrong jobs. Not listening to my gut has put my life in jeopardy. I have had to learn to listen to my gut, and I am finding that this is nowhere truer than in the search for a good Creative Writing MFA program.
When I look for five different opinions on the pursuit of a good grad program, I get ten different responses:
“You have to look for a potential instructor who writes like you. You’ll learn more from someone with a similar style, and the school is more likely to pick a student who is a good stylistic fit with their staff.”
“Nonsense! So many of the big-name writers do very little actual teaching in these programs. Besides, just because someone writes well doesn’t mean they can teach worth a lick.”
“It’s like real estate: Location, location, location. If you’re not in love with the place you’re living the next two to three years, your work will suffer and your whole quality of life will go down.”
“Whilst I don’t suggest going to someplace you’ll be miserable, bear in mind that you’re only going to live there two or three years–that’s nothing. Besides, if you are going to be a college instructor, you will have very little say about where you live after you graduate.”
“It’s all about the benjamins! You’re daft if you take out one red cent in loans for an MFA. Go only where they will pay you fully.”
“If a program fully funds me, but their alumni have zero track record of developing anything resembling a career, what does that say about the program? Taking out a little to go to a program with a proven track record will pay off in the long run.”
And on and on it goes. I really can’t keep up with all the contradictory advice I get.
So that is why I’ve decided to go with my gut. I know myself better than anyone. (I did not believe that for many years.) I know what sets of circumstances will work for me and which won’t. And no matter where I apply to, there are always X-factors no one can predict.
With that, I’m feeling pretty secure about my list of schools. Each has great upsides and some drawbacks. There is no perfect program; they will all have drawbacks. It’s a matter of whether you can live with the drawbacks.
What I am insecure about, though, is how public I should be about my list of potential schools. I know that no matter what school I post, I will get a Greek chorus offering 155,309 reasons why I shouldn’t go to that school, and I don’t need that drama. Also, how much are the schools I’m applying to going to be looking over my shoulder to see where else I’m applying? When I applied to Bible college, I had to list on the application where else I was planning to apply. Though grad school is hardly Bible college, I don’t know if it’s standard practice for them to know where else I’m applying, and whether their knowing will have an impact on whether they accept me.
I’m sure all this will work out in the end. I am excited at the prospect of moving on to the next phase of my life.
I was pleasantly surprised by the little uptick in readership yesterday. It is certainly enough of a motivator to write here a little more often.
At the moment, I am in the town of Morris, Minnesota, about three hours west of the Twin Cities and near some Dakota or other. I am here for the Prairie Gate Literary Festival the University of Minnesota-Morris. The town is small, about 5,000, and to me, quintessentially small-town Midwest. In other words, it is very familiar but not entirely comfortable.
This is my first professional conference. For the next day and a half, I will attend readings and workshops, as well as doing what I enjoy most: meeting new people. Business cards in tow, I hope to find a bit of camaraderie and kinship, and perhaps even learn more about MFA programs here in the Midwest.
I will be sure to give an overview when I return to Minneapolis on Sunday. Meanwhile, I’m about to head off for the evening’s activities.
This is the debate I struggle with right now: do I focus on poetry or creative nonfiction? Virtually all graduate programs require their students to pick a specialization. Usually, the choice is fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction. (Some programs will include playwriting and/or screenwriting in the mix, and some programs are only fiction and poetry.) I have learnt that, despite my desires otherwise, my talent is not in writing fiction. I am good at inventing worlds but not good at getting anything to happen in them.
As far as creative nonfiction goes, one of my instructors–the only one who has seen me write in several genres–believes that my creative nonfiction is strongest, memoir in particular. The fact that my life has just been weird works to my advantage in terms of having material to work with. I am also learning this semester that I do very well at writing literary critique, so I’m not just a one-trick pony when it comes to creative nonfiction.
But creative nonfiction does not come to me easily. At all. For two weeks I’ve been struggling to write an essay for this blog, and I haven’t got anywhere. It’s a time-sensitive issue, as it pertains to some recent current events, and I am very passionate about the subject. But it has been like pulling teeth getting anywhere with it. Every day, the relevance of what I have to say in the essay fades a little.
Poetry, on the other hand, comes much more easily. When I sit down for some writing time, the first thing I work on is poetry, and it’s what I spend the most time on. I like how the boundaries of poetry are loose and free. I like that I get to play with the way the words feel in the mouth. I like that I can whittle a story down to its essence–all the way down to a haiku if necessary. It is also all I have managed to get published to date, and people tell me that, out of what I write, it is what elicits the most powerful reaction.
The trouble with poetry, though, is that its audience is absolutely tiny. And I do not write just for myself. I do not write because I enjoy it–though that is a wonderful by-product. As unpopular as it is to say in the writing world, I write because I have something that needs to be said. If someone else said what I have to say, the value would be the same. This idea may not be obvious in everything I write, but to date I’ve only told the thousandth part of all I need to say, and I hope that the message of all I have to say will be understood as the sum of all I write, rather than just bits in isolation. Each bit I write is like a premise in a very long philosophical argument. And I write because it behooves me to contribute to society in the best way I can. The best thing I can do is to write. To have the biggest impact possible, to me, is to have as many people reading as possible. I have trouble seeing how that is possible with poetry.
I have a few months yet before I have to submit my choice to the schools I am applying to. And I will have some classes between now and then in which I might encounter some breakthrough in my writing–heck, maybe even with fiction. And if I get into my first choice of school, I won’t even have to choose a focus. (Yeah, I’ve made great strides with my choice of grad schools and my list is more or less set.) And, of course, I can always write whatever I want–I will just have two or three years where I’m focusing more one genre. Perhaps bearing that in mind will take some of the pressure off. However, my application will have to have my best writing, and I will have to decide which genre is my best writing, maybe.
It will all come together. I just get impatient.