All Thumbs

Oct. 6th 2011

I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., and I’ll never forget something the director of the program once said, because it puzzled me, at first.

I don’t remember what semester it was — my second or third, most likely. We were finishing up a class with Steven, the director, and somehow he started talking about the writing program’s process for accepting students. When someone applied to the program, he or she submitted a writing sample. The writing sample was shared with two faculty members who were in charge of reviewing it (independently) and giving it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Two thumbs up? All good; prospective student accepted. Two thumbs down? Rejection.

Here’s where it got interesting. Steven was saying how his most recent batch of applications had more split votes than ever before, meaning he was dealing with writing samples where one faculty member gave it a thumbs up and another gave it a thumbs down.

Steven then smiled and said, “This means the writing samples are getting better.”

Huh? How could a split vote indicate the writing samples were stronger? Wouldn’t two thumbs up always trump a split vote?

I eventually realized Steven was correct. The beauty is in the polarity of the split vote. A work that’s polarizing — meaning there are those who love it and those who don’t — is often a work that stands out, gets talked about and debated over, and makes a difference (in a good or bad way, depending on your viewpoint).

Yes, receiving two thumbs up is not a BAD thing, and it often does trump split votes. But there is something special, I think, about receiving that split vote. It indicates (though not always) that there’s something irksome there…something itchy…perhaps something uncomfortable…something worth talking and even arguing about.

For me, as a writer, that’s what I’d like my stories to be: treasures to some and irksome and irritating to others.

Why?

Because it would show my writing isn’t residing in the Land of Vanilla. There’s nothing wrong with that place: I can appreciate stories that are squarely set there, and I can appreciate the fact some readers are happiest reading those types of stories. But I know if I stayed there, I wouldn’t be true to the stories in my heart.

As I once said to a friend, I like lifting up the rocks and writing about the world of the creepy crawly things underneath. I like grit. I like dark. That doesn’t mean I don’t like a healthy dose of happy, but, for me, there are many shades of happily ever after — not all versions include rainbows and unicorns and the protag getting her man.

Forgotten April, my first book, is, for the most part, from the Land of Vanilla, and that’s not to say everyone will like it; rather, it’s not so polarizing that it’s going to have as many thumbs down as it has thumbs up (the story isn’t irksome enough).

What Happened in Granite Creek, which is coming out in a few days, will likely be more polarizing for a variety of reasons (it was with my beta readers).

As scary as the thought is of getting some of those thumbs down votes, I think I’m okay with that.

How ’bout you: when you read something where you react strongly — either positively or negatively — what do you do: will you post a review? Recommend or warn people? Get a refund on the book? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted by Robyn | in Creative Writing | 4 Comments »

MFA in Creative Writing – Pros & Cons, As I See It

Dec. 13th 2010

I read an interesting article the other day in Slate Magazine called “MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?” It’s one of those subjects that’s been around since the dawn of MFA programs, although it’s evolved with time.

I received my MFA in Creative Writing in 2008 from Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program in Cambridge, Mass. I debated with myself a long time before I made the decision to apply to a program (and I have a very distinct memory of printing applications to other full-time MFA programs, like Brown’s and BU’s, on September 10, 2001. We all know what happened the next day. To say I lost focus after that is an understatement).

I’m a commercial writer, not a literary one (or, at least, not what I consider to be a literary writer). As you can tell from this here blog and website and Facebook page, I have no problem promoting myself (I’m a marketing copywriter by day), which is something that many literary types loathe. The bottom line for me is I want to be the best writer I can possibly be and write stuff that matters to a passionate tribe of fans. Not everyone will like what I write, and that’s okay.

So why did I finally decide to go for my MFA? A few reasons. At the time, I thought I might want to teach full time (I’d been an adjunct professor at Mass School of Law), and the MFA is considered the terminal degree in the writing field. I thought being involved in a program would help take my writing to the next proverbial level. And I thought the degree would provide validation: to family, friends, and myself.

I don’t regret my decision at all. But I’m not pursuing a teaching gig (and I don’t see that in my future, but never say never). I had an epiphany over the summer (with the help of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird) that validation needs to start with me. All that said, my writing did reach the next proverbial level, I think. Would that have happened anyway over the course of two years? I’d like to think yes, but who knows? I do think it happened faster because I was in a program.

Like anything else, there are definite pros and cons to an MFA program. Here’s my list, as I see it.

Pros

  • Justified time (one to two years) devoted to your writing (I say justified because for those people in your world who don’t understand that writers need to write, it’s much easier to say, “I have something due for school” and have the person understand and accept it)
  • Someone else – faculty members – devoted to your writing
  • Meeting other writers
  • Expansion of thoughts and worldview: new books, new ideas, new ways to think and do things
  • Terminal degree, which is needed if you want to teach writing at the college level
  • *Might help your queries or submissions get noticed (I am a true believer that in the end it’s about the writing…but if someone is willing to read a couple of extra pages – be it a fiction reader or editor – because of the MFA, well okeedokee)

Cons

  • Writing programs are filled with published writers who teach. A published writer does not a good teacher make. I actually have a theory that editors would make better writing instructors because a good editor will see what’s working with your piece, your voice, your vision and will help you shape it and take it to the next level. Too often writers who teach don’t know how to teach beyond the way they write. This isn’t criticism. It’s merely an observation.
  • Some writing programs are notorious for being cutthroat and ultra competitive. Personally, that’s not an environment I would flourish in, although maybe it works for some people.
  • More debt, as in school loans, and often later in life when you’re likely to have a mortgage and kids’ educations to think about.

Some other thoughts, and these are just my opinions, so accept or reject at will.

  • You don’t need an MFA to write quality fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.
  • You don’t need an MFA to get published.
  • You don’t need an MFA “to be a writer.”
  • You do need an MFA (yes, there are always exceptions) if you want to teach writing at the college level.
  • You don’t need an MFA to learn to become disciplined.
  • You don’t need an MFA to make connections.

That said, an MFA can help with all of the above, if you decide to work it that way. For example, if you decide to pursue an MFA because you’re serious about taking your writing to the next level, well, then, you likely will. But it’s you who is making that happen – not the MFA (however, the MFA program might give your subconscious a “reason” to focus…and the MFA program will likely provide an environment that will help you succeed in your goal – a thesis deadline will do that for a person).

An MFA can be a good “excuse,” if you need an excuse, to focus on your writing for one to two years.

So, you might be wondering, if I had to do it all over again, would I?

That’s a good question. I definitely grew as a writer during the program, and while I’d like to think that growth would have happened anyway, I have no way of knowing that with any certainty. The biggest thing I got out of my program is the different writing I was exposed to. Yeah, I love to read, and I know, as writers, we’re supposed to read widely, but it does help to have some guidance from veteran writers on just how wide to cast the net…and where to cast the net. I loved the reading lists my faculty advisors and I put together for my first three semesters (I’ll share those lists in another post). I’m not sure I would have found some of those writers on my own, even with my good intentions of reading widely.

Okay, now it’s your turn. Are you considering an MFA? If yes, share your reasons, your reservations, etc. And for the MFA veterans out there, what do YOU think of my pros and cons? Agree or disagree? Any to add? Get the discussion started in the comments.

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