The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be*

Me and My Mentor, Nancy McKinley, at Fake Graduation from Wilkes
Me and My Mentor, Nancy McKinley, at Fake Graduation from Wilkes

A lot of shit happened during 2013.

I moved twice, took care of my dying friend, had more freelance clients than ever, lost myself, found myself, wrote a book, experienced real grief, improved my love relationship, repainted and decorated a room in our house (w/ my partner) got a restaurant job after a long non-restaurant work spell, explained the concept of “biological father” to my child, told her there wasn’t a real Santa, had the furnace replaced in our old drafty house,  went to a writers’ conference, made new friends, lost track of old ones, and reconnected with people from childhood.

It has been intense and difficult and magical.

At the end of all of it, I got a Master’s degree. That photo up there is my me and my mentor, Nancy McKinley after our moment during fake graduation the last night of residency. She’s a fiction and essay writer, and a feminist, and among my favorite people on Earth.

The Wilkes University Low-Residency MA/MFA program is the one I’m working through now (I write my MFA critical paper this semester), and It’s amazing. If you’re not in the know, low-residency means that you go to campus for a small amount of time each semester and do the rest of your coursework online or by correspondence.

One of the recent graduates from the program, Lori A. May, actually wrote the book on the best low-residency MFA programs. So if you’re interested, that’s a great place to start, and it’s no accident that she’s there, at Wilkes, out of any of the other many low-res programs available.

I think New Year’s Resolutions are disingenuous at best. Every year I, instead of making a list of things to accomplish, try to adopt a general posture of self-improvement.

This year, my blogging slump will straighten, I will focus my excess energy on writing and teaching. I will say no to things that don’t help further my goals.

Why are you telling me this?

I must seem like one of those attention-seeking internet lame-os. I am. But if you’re reading this, you had, at least once, a passing fancy for my blog, and I need to confess these things to help keep me accountable. It’s a lot easier to break a promise to myself than it is one I make to internet strangers.

So, dear Internet Stranger (Internet Friend, Real-Life Acquaintance, or Real-Life Friend), thanks for being here.

And know that I will post on Wednesdays for the rest of the year.

Once a week, about 500 words (probably sometimes way more).

For me, for you, for art.

And if you’re in North Central PA, go click Workshop Registration and join me for a study of blogging or of memoir. Next week? I’ll list five of my favorite memoirs.

 

* Lyric from a poignant song from Love is Dead by Mr. T Experience.

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Residency Day 5: Beauty, Blight, and Bombast

There’s a group of about 4 men, possessing a complementary nose for mischief, and they travel together in our “cohort.”  Our “cohort” is our group of writers entering the MFA program at the same time.  Why is it not a class?  I do not know.  These men are delightfully rowdy and goofy (they remind me of my youth) and one of them put a picture of himself on his lab wallpaper on these super sexy iMacs in the lab next to where we get our learn on.

I was so amused that I asked if I could take a picture of the picture, and then–ham that he is–he posed with it.  So here’s this week’s dose of the metaphysical:

This is a lovely view of the River Walk.

This is a detail from one of the entrances to the YMCA here.  Freaking gorgeous, but surrounded on many sides by economic depression.  This is a queer little town.

The food and coffee are bad.  I am looking forward to cooking again.

Everything else is righteous.

I leave you with a sample of some of the people I might get to have as a mentor and whom I will spend the next 3 years learning to know, like, professionally man.  I am the freaking luckiest girl in the world.  No, really.  They’ve put on readings for us every night, and there are more excellent & successful writers here than it seems prudent to list.  Maybe it’s not prudent to list any of them, but I’ve heard every one of the ones below read and I’m telling you now: go buy their books.  Delicious.

Kaylie Jones

Beverly Donofrio

Nina Solomon

Cecilia Galante

Michael Lennon

Nick Mamatas

Sara Pritchard

John Bowers 

Kevin Oderman

Nancy McKinley

Anxiety about a book about writing? Am I Missing the Point?

From PublicDomainReview.org, this is kind of what it feels like in early workshops: you are clueless and vulnerable and cut wide open.

I have to read books about being a writer before I head off to the residency next month.

I’ve nearly finished Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.

But it makes me nervous about this program I’m entering, because the book seems to be written for people who’ve never thought about themselves as writers much more than as a passing fancy.  It’s great on teaching people how to train their minds for obsession, and I’ve been enlightened on a few points.  More on this later.

But Writing Down the Bonesthough also a really swell book, that can be inspirational at any point along the way, is designed for beginning writers, too.

First, I would hope that by the time a person is pursuing an MFA or other advanced degree in writing, she’s got a pretty good idea about herself as a writer, and she’s heading on in school to put the polish on previously discovered habits, skills, and self-awareness.  I think that already knowing oneself as a writer is totally integral to success in a low-residency program, too.

I will also say that I hope a person who intends to procure an MFA is already writing every day, has already figured out her way over the humps of “block,” and inertia, and waning ambition in the face of critique, and rejection, dismissal, scheduling, and all the other things that writers must bear up under.

Now, I will say that I have found the book to be–more than anything–utterly affirmative that I’m on the right path.  At times, I’ve had to put it down to go write.  I love when books do that, when they get me so excited about writing that I can’t put it off.  It’s also given me a vocabulary to discuss things that I knew about myself–Brande calls it the Dual Personality (the way writers have two distinct selves who must cooperate, but who must also know when to butt out: writer and life-liver, essentially)–that I hadn’t really named beyond calling it “Academically Sanctioned Schizophrenia.”  Which, it turns out, E. L. Doctorow said first, or at the least many moons before I did.

I also encountered a new (to me) notion that was then echoed in Cathy Day’s blog, which was something kind of pedagogical (that’s fancy for college teaching theory) that wouldn’t have occurred to me: workshopping ain’t always great.  Or at least, not in the traditional, round-table, everybody involved in the discussion method.

Brande says (in 1934),

Here I should like to add a footnote for other teachers, rather than for students of writing.  I think that holding up the work of each pupil in class for the criticism of the others is a throughly pernicious practice, and it does not become harmless simply by allowing the manuscript to be read without assigning its authorship publicly.  The ordeal is too trying to be taken with equanimity, and a sensitive writer can be thrown out of his stride deplorably by it, whether or not the criticism is favorable.  It is seldom that the criticism is favorable, when a beginner is judged by the jury of his peers.  They seem to need to demonstrate taht, although tthey are not yet writing quite perfectly themselves, they are able to see all the flaws in a story which is read to them, and they fall upon it tooth and fang.

I will say that there were some queer, interpersonal consequences to the workshops I’ve been in, but they have been, largely, very well-controlled and the instructors were totally tuned in & monitoring the conversation.  In grad school effort I, the greatest antipathy was toward the professor.  But I always found  workshops to be helpful, once I figured out who my best readers were, and frankly, I learned some really great lessons about having thick skin and separating my sense of myself from my work–the Dual Personality of critique.  It is simply no good for self and work to be inextricable.  I am not the story.  Still, Brande’s particularly strongly worded passage on the practice got me to thinking.

Then, I encountered the following in Cathy Day’s blog when I was linking her in the blog post I wrote yesterday.   She says (in 2012),

Remember: on the first day of class, I tell my students 1.) to write the book they want to write—no genre or subject matter restrictions, and 2.) they won’t have to show this manuscript to the whole class, just to me and a small group of sympathetic readers.

This upticks + the removal of the “all-class workshop” indicates to me that my students took risks because they felt safe doing so.

Huh.

Would I have taken more risks if I’d been workshopped by a smaller group?

I don’t know!  For me, a lot of the fun was helping my peers with their drafts, engaging on the sensitive stuff, getting down and dirty with the text.  But I’m a Scorpio, and would be intense regardless of my sign, I imagine; and I’m not sure that so many people find such unilateral thrill in every process and procedure at all connected to writing as I do.  Also, I get a huge kick out of conquering my own less-savory impulses, like those of the desire to hurl pettiness at anybody who’s fool enough not to think I’m awesome.  I also love finding out that I’m not as awesome as I think I am.  I’d be insufferable if  humility & self-doubt were not in the my writer’s psychological/self-awareness tool box.

I also hope that I’m not the only person entering the program who thinks of herself as a writer, has been a practicing writer for years, and is finding this preparatory reading to be–though delightful as all reading is–a touch worrisome.

I was hoping we’d read some delicious, but challenging (narratively) novel like Josh Russell’s Yellow Jack, which, if you haven’t read you should.   And that we’d be asked to analyze it, and write about it, and then when we got to the residency, we’d talk about that book and other great ones, and about how we best use our writer selves.

I was not hoping that we’d talk about how to reach the writing self.  I think we should already know.

I hope I’m getting it wrong.  I hope that these books are meant specifically to resonate and encourage and to give us insight into our selves, not as stepping stones into the writing life.

Am I being ungenerous?  I know some of you subscribers and readers are MFA/advanced writing degree teachers and students.  Am I expecting too much?  Do I want more commitment to this life from adults entering a low-residency MA/MFA than is reasonable?