I am constantly surprised by water as I drive north from Seattle. The mountains, while queued up in the wrong direction, are familiar enough. The evergreens are a bit shaggier than I’m used to, but I’ll cope.
Water, though: on my face, soaking into my hair, beading on my coat, streaming off the windshield, looming in the ever present clouds, weighing down the air I breathe, and even messing with my view as the miles scroll by. I live in Colorado. I like Colorado. I expect gullies. Washouts. Sere valleys. Open plains.
Instead I get water. Falls. Rivers. Bays. Oceans.
I am not where I’m meant to be. It’s a grim thought, and not the first time I’ve had it.
You might say it’s a bad way to start an MFA residency, and if you did, I’d agree with you.
I’ve come to Washington for what amounts to a trial run with the students and faculty of a Masters in Fine Arts – Creative Writing program: basically an advanced degree in storytelling, if you want it simple. These sorts of things are handled many different ways, depending on the institution, but this particular program follows what’s known as a Limited Residency model, which means that most of each semester takes place online (via forums, email, and the odd Skype call) but always begins with an on-location, high-intensity, face-to-face gathering lasting roughly a week and a half. If you’re interested in the whole program but not completely sure you want to go all-in, taking part in such a residency — just the residency — is a good way to see if you like what’s being offered, and even if you don’t dig it, hopefully you’ll at least have a few sessions during that week and a half that gave you some value.
At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’m experiencing some doubts.
Preemptive buyer’s remorse, really, which tends to happen with me whenever I’ve laid down a fair amount of money for an unknown product. That’s not to say the residency fees are exorbitant — they’re quite fair, from the comparisons I’ve done — but I’m not local to the Pacific Northwest, which means I add on airline tickets, car rentals, and room and board for the lengthy stay, and it starts to seem impossible that I’ll recoup my investment in any satisfying way.
And that’s only the residency. As I drive up Interstate 5, I’m multiplying these expenses by a half dozen semesters, plus tuition for the whole program, and I start to feel kind of crazy.
Actually, crazy would be okay; I start to feel foolish.
What am I doing?
I’ve had a waxing and waning interest in doing an MFA program for quite awhile, for reasons I’ll get into, but it’s never gotten very far without hitting a roadblock in the form of other commitments, my own wariness, and most of all discontent with the programs I’ve investigated.
Yes, you are teaching an art, but whether you like it or not you’re also teaching a trade — or at the very least many of your students are coming to learn a trade, and put up with the art portion of it as part of the deal. — John Scalzi
John nails it. I’d asked around about particularly good MFA programs, got recommendations, checked them out, and saw a disappointing absence of what I chose to think of as Practical Application. Great: you’ve got the “literature” part down, but what about contracts? What about queries? What about ‘How to Act Like a Professional When Dealing With Professionals’?” What about basic self defense?
M.F.A. programs are about the creation and study of literature, and it’s worth reminding people that you don’t need any degree to be a writer. A young writer whose central goal is commercial success should skip graduate school.
That’s a quote from Elise Blackwell, director of the MFA program at the University of South Carolina. And she’s correct: you don’t need an MFA (or any education focused on creative writing) to get things done commercially. I certainly don’t have one, and there are more than a few professional authors who will advise people against them.
After all, I can write; I believe that’s established. I’m certainly not the best anyone’s ever read (I’m not even the best I’ve read this week), but I’m nowhere near the worst, and I’d like to think I’m always getting better. I do think what a writer does is art but at the same time, like Scalzi, I believe you reliably produce that art by approaching it like a trade. Work. Work you love, but work nonetheless. (I’m not the hardest worker when it comes to writing, either, but that’s a whole different topic.)
I didn’t pursue a B.A. in Creative Writing because everyone I met in that program seemed obsessed with how to get inspired and how to act inspired (read: act especially weird and artsy), and that seemed pretty pointless. And annoying. I already didn’t having enough time to write everything I had ideas for, and I minored in Theater, so as far as artsy and weird went my ticket was thoroughly punched.
Also, I was afraid (rightly, I think) that writing classes would have the same chilling effect on my output that Lit classes had on my input. Want to know a really great way to keep me from reading a book? Tell me I have to read it; over the course of five years at college, I read exactly one of novels assigned in any of my English Lit classes — I stopped buying the textbooks altogether.
And oh yeah, there’s that: I’m a really bad student. Good teacher. Baaaaaad student.
So… Why Spend Any Thoughts on an MFA, Again?
Despite all the cons, and the fact that I appear to be doing the professional writing thing at least somewhat right, I’ve always felt that somewhere out there might be some kind of… something — a writing program, a co-op, a commune — that would present a challenge that made me push myself.
If you’re getting an MFA in writing, do it to pump the most out of the experience as you possibly can. Go to a place you feel strongly about—a place with writers in the faculty you want to know and learn from. Do it only with the expectation that you hope to get a bit better, that you’re going to focus, that you mean business. – Maureen Johnson
I was prepared to do that, but I couldn’t seem to find the right program. I’d stopped looking.
Then came Yi Shun.
Yi Shun and her husband stopped in Denver during their cross-country move from New York to Los Angeles. We had brunch, and Kate asked how her MFA program was going. The answer was glowing and energetic (as most everything related to Yi Shun tends to be), and pulled me into the conversation, where I shared my frustration with finding a program that focused on real life more than theory.
Her response: “You really, really need to check this program out.”
So I did. I read:
“The program’s objective is to produce productive, publishing writers who are prepared for a life of writing.”
I got interested.
I looked at the residency schedule and saw “How to Think Like a Publisher” taught by a twenty-year veteran of a major house; “Copyright and Creative Commons in the Digital Age”; “Exploring the Excuses for Why We Aren’t Writing”; Query and Submission seminars; “Indie Publishing” and “Marketing Your Book” by a guy from Amazon.
All of which lay beside traditional courses like Craft of Fiction, Directed Reading in stuff like Mythology, and (requisite) Workshops for your own work.
I got excited. I applied and was accepted.
Then all I had to do was wait.
Waiting is where the doubts creep in. Waiting is where you start to think “It looks good on the website, but…” Waiting is where you wonder how reading ten short stories and writing five papers in eight days is going to make your next novel any better.
Waiting is where you start to do math while you drive up Interstate 5.
“Just Give It a Chance”
I’ve misread the schedule and arrived just in time for the faculty meeting (wasn’t invited), but two hours late for Orientation (was).
“Seems like everyone knows everyone else,” I comment to another attendee.
She looks around the room. “Pretty much.”
The drive back to my hotel is rain on the windshield and unexpectedly curving roads that hug the bay.
“What am I doing here?”
The morning sessions are all the traditional classes. Craft of Fiction wants a paper by tomorrow. Workshop will start with my submission, since I’m only here for the residency.
“Don’t make yourself responsible for my happiness with this thing,” I tell Yi Shun while we walk along the shore to the beach house she and a few other students have rented. “That’s not going to work out.”
“For me?” she asks.
The experienced author who’s supposed to talk about commercial publishing instead details the independent co-op she founded because “there are no editors with the Big Six that actually do editing anymore.” I amazed by everything my editor has taught me (or the way the cover designer used my input to make something better than I ever imagined, or everything the publicist did for me). Silence is not my natural state. I spend the afternoon biting my tongue. Exhausting.
“You should sign up for the student reading tomorrow night,” says Yi Shun.
“From what?” I ask. And: “I’m not a student.”
“Your book. The part where she flies with the dragon.”
I sputter. Crazy idea.
“Did anyone have another angle on Voice for their paper?”
I look around. “I said Voice isn’t something that can be taught, only found, and doesn’t fit alongside the other stuff you cover in this class.”
The resulting discussion is energetic.
The workshop likes my piece. I take seven pages of notes before the faculty member both blows my mind and sets off several light bulbs with only a few comments.
The afternoon sessions are pretty much the same as yesterday, but I get a chance to (clumsily) tell an author how much one of their earlier books affected me as a young reader.
That night, I read the part where she flies with the dragon. It goes over pretty well.
“You’re really good,” someone tells me later. “What the hell are you doing here?”
I shrug and smile. I’m still working that out.
“I was wrong about the morning sessions being bland and the afternoon being the useful stuff,” I tell Kate on the phone that night. “It’s the other way around.”
“Which of those classes are the ones that go through the rest of the semester?” she asks.
I get my first shot at critiquing someone else’s work — something I’ve always been bad at and guilty about. It goes well. Maybe really well.
The first afternoon session is actual, practical information and advice. I’m almost too surprised to take notes. Almost. They fill four pages.
We’re discussing character development. I wrote my paper about a secondary character instead of a protagonist, because I liked him the better, and another good discussion starts up.
The workshop is a flurry of ideas and insights. I’m learning as much critiquing other people’s stuff as I did when we went over mine.
“I’m really glad you came to the residency,” one of the students tells me during the break. “Even if you’re not staying for the MFA.”
By lunchtime I’m exhausted. I’ve sold or given away all the copies of Hidden Things I’ve brought, and ask the local bookstore if they can get any more.
“… so what the hell are you doing here?”
It’s the fifth time I’ve been asked the question; the second time by one of the TAs for the program.
This time I have an answer, and it makes them smile.
That afternoon, I tell the director of the program I’m really enjoying the residency, but can’t commit to the MFA until I find out what’s going on with my Dad. For him and me, the best case scenario is ‘The cancer isn’t in the bones yet.’
“If the news is bad,” I explain, “my free time is spoken for.”
Text from Mom. Dad’s bone scan is clear. Everything’s clear.
I step outside and I call him to make sure. Neither of us quite believe it.
“I might do this program,” I tell him, walking along the shoreline.
“You should. You sound excited about it.”
I find the director just before lunch.
“Your dad,” he says before I can reach him. “How is he?”
In the middle of the latest workshop critique, while everyone else is talking, I figure out something about the piece we’re going over, and suggest a fix to the author just as we run out of time.
I see the light bulb go off for her, the way it did for me. Feels like giving back. Paying forward.
The guy from Amazon gives a talk that fills up five pages in my notebook.
I start filling out the paperwork with the director.
Outside, the sun’s shining on the bay.
“Doyce is joining the program,” our workshop faculty announces.
The owner of the bookstore brings a stack of my books over that evening, and grouses when they sell out, because there won’t be any signed copies left for the store. I tell her I’ll be back in August. She makes me promise.
We’re all taking notes on how the rest of the semester’s going to go. I have to leave after lunch, so I can make my flight.
I take the ferry instead of the bridge, and watch the water as we cross the bay.
No one inside publishing cares about an MFA. Readers don’t care. Also? They’re expensive.
They improve your skills, though.
Maybe — probably — not on first drafts, when your only job is to cut the block of stone you’ll work with later and entertain yourself. I can’t see that I’d apply most of that stuff there, or that I’d even want to.
But second drafts? Yes. Any and all editing. Yes. Explaining clearly what I mean. Understanding why something’s working, beyond simply knowing that it does. I know it helps, because I watched it happen in the space of nine days.
And, not least of all, taking this thing on scares me. I’m perverse enough to see that as a good thing.
“What the hell are you doing here?”