“What the hell are you doing here?” My first MFA Residency

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.

A What-Now?

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.

I hate waiting.

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”

Day 0.

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?”

Day 1.

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.

“Also you.”

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.

Day 2.

“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.

Day 3.

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.

Day 4.

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.

Day 5.

“… 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.”

Day 6.

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?”

Day 7.

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.

Day 8.

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.

Day 9.

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.

What Changed?

No one inside publishing cares about an MFA. Readers don’t care. Also? They’re expensive.

All true.

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?”

Getting better.

6 Replies to ““What the hell are you doing here?” My first MFA Residency”

  1. I have often felt like the MFA is a war between the two sides of my brain. The practical side is arguing that it’s too much money to spend on a craft that may not earn it back. The other side of my brain is like, “Dude, shut up. Indie publishing is a new business model. I’ll sell books if I want to. And I intend them to be well-written.”

    It’s hard to get past the glazed look when you tell someone you’re getting an advanced degree in creative writing, but your reason for choosing this program is the same reason I chose it– they fully intend for you to make a living writing and they will show you how to do it. That sets them apart.

    By the second residency, you will feel sorry for the newbies, because you will be part of the “closed group” that seemed so hard to break into. It’s not, though. Everyone is really accepting. The first residency I was afraid to tell anyone I was a Mormon with 4 kids who drove an oversized SUV. Would they send a lynch mob? Now I realize that my contrasting world view may well be my strength.

    Write on! I’m glad you’re all in.

  2. Gosh, Doyce, I wish you’d called me on that comment instead of biting your tongue. While I’m sure you’re quoting me accurately, that isn’t a good representation of what I think and it isn’t what I usually say. The situation is much more complicated, having to do with the rafts of extra work editors have been saddled with over the last years, often to the detriment of editing. Apparently I didn’t make that at all clear, which I seriously regret.

    The place of the mid-list writer in commercial publishing is pretty precarious these days — it’s a bit difficult to talk about without feeling glum.

    I’m sincerely sorry that I disappointed and exhausted you.



    1. Hi Vonda,

      First, I want to apologize. I debated that paragraph, but thought it conveyed my mood for that first day — it wasn’t meant to offend you, and I’m very sorry I did.

      I came at that session as a mid-list writer in commercial publishing, and as such the attitude in the room (not yours) was a bit difficult to take. I regret I didn’t bring it up in the class — I simply didn’t feel it was my place, but part of that was the fact I didn’t feel at home at the residency that first day. The failing was mine for not engaging you in conversation, as I later realized is the point of the program. (To be honest, the one time I contributed a comment, I got jumped on a bit by one of the other students (again, not you), and it shut me down.)

      You know, I hope, that I hold you in high regard — I’m the same guy who shipped in a copy of your books overnight, for you to sign. We may see this this issue differently, but you’re still a pivotal author in my development as a writer.

      I want you to know: you were also the speaker I mentioned on Day Three who presented the first afternoon session I thought was really eye opening — the one that redeemed the afternoon sessions for me. I imagine that’s a hard thing to hear, what with my foot so firmly in my mouth already, but there it is.

      Again, with respect and admiration,

  3. Hi Doyce,

    Sure, I do remember your kind words on my book, and your going out of your way to get your copy to Whidbey Island for me to sign, which I was very touched by.

    So that was part of my distress at having disappointed you. I’m glad the 3rd day session was of use.

    I hear you about being a commercial writer in a more literary milieu. (Add to that being a science geek with no vocabulary of literary criticism.) The last time I was a student I was in a similar situation — the Chesterfield Writers Film Project, now dead and gone, alas — which sought to teach the craft of screenwriting to writers of prose. I was the only commercial writer in the group (as far as I know the only commercial writer they had ever accepted) and the only workshop member who made her entire living from writing fiction. So there was a certain disconnect and I hear you and understand.

    I think you pinpointed how the hour went a little off the rails. This is the first time in a very long time that I’ve taught a class, but I don’t want to sit here and make excuses for the wobbles.

    Experience is something that helps a workshop leader keep students from getting jumped on by other students. My experience is no longer very shiny, and it failed in deflecting that and making you feel more comfortable about speaking in class.

    I’m glad you brought up the subject, and I don’t feel that you have anything to apologize for.



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