Just out today, my essay “Philistines” covers how I dealt with being gay during my first year in Bible college. Included: a regrettable haircut.
As I have made a decision about what I’m going to focus on in grad school, it means that I’ve had to make a radical shift in my writing, from spending most of my time writing poetry to focusing on creative nonfiction. Interestingly, this doesn’t change what I’m writing. Most of the material for my poetry comes from my life and family stories. It certainly changes how I write, though.
I’m facing several challenges in this shift. One is how I edit. I’m used to having a half-dozen poems, each fifty to a hundred words long, and bouncing back and forth amongst them as I edit. This fits me; I have the attention span of a fruit fly. Working on prose requires more focus and discipline. I’m only working on one or two pieces a day, and spending a lot more time with each.
Another challenge is length. When I edit poetry, I try to whittle down what I write to the essence, to the point that I recently created a haiku completely by accident, after I had cut out over half the original material. Prose is a different beast. You can write short prose, and I gravitate to this. Most of my prose pieces are between 600 and 800 words. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself. However, the demands of publishing industry mean that I have to be flexible and know how to write in longer formats. Also, I know that some of the grad schools I want to apply to specify in their application directions that a nonfiction portfolio should consist of two pieces totaling 15 to 25 pages. This would total 5,000 to 8,300 words, according to my quick and possibly incorrect calculations. This is a far cry from 1,200 to 1,600 words.
I despaired of this at first. I didn’t think I could do it. Then, I just told myself that, if I have to do it, I can do it. I respond to instructions well; I was a good boy who “did what I was told.” What it really comes down to is, first, selection of material, and second, lots of practice. I’m not going to write a big novel right now, and I don’t need to. I can work up to bigger and bigger pieces.
Yesterday I started a draft that hit 1,000 pages and is probably only one-half to two-thirds done. It’s a good start.
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.
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.