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 »

Taking the Leap: On Writing Full Time

Feb. 4th 2011

I have a good friend who is struggling in her job. She wants to leave it — she really does — and she would like to write full time (freelance and creative stuff; she’s a novelist). But she’s scared. Scared of the unknown. Scared of being poor in a tough economic climate. Scared she won’t make it. Scared she’ll become depressed. Scared about feeling scared.

I get that. Back in early 2001, I came to a crossroads in my radio “career,” where I’d been since the tender age of 21. I had always planned on it being a short-term gig and that I’d leave to go write the Great American Novel, but the one-year plan turned quickly into three, then five, then close to seven. I used the excuse of money (and without getting into it, I’ll say it was a legit excuse) for my reason to bail (morning show producers get paid squat and I wanted a raise that would put me in line with one of my male colleagues, but it wasn’t going to happen). I really wanted to leave and write, but how could I? I was almost 28 — a grown up — and past the age of ditching it all to follow an elusive dream. I had rent to pay, a cat to feed, and well, I mentioned the grown-up part, right? So I found another job: teaching reading to children. I convinced myself that this was related enough to writing and that it would give me time to write and it did pay more money and I had to do it. Even when I accepted the job and gave my notice at the station, I think I knew I’d never work one day at the other gig. I needed to write. I needed to figure out a way to make that happen. (I imagine many of you are thinking this: why couldn’t I write while I was in radio? Very good question, and trust me, I kick myself now for all the time I wasted in my 20s. My only excuse is lack of sleep — my days started at three in the morning and by the time afternoon hit, my brain was fried. I know, I know. I should have pushed through it, but alas.)

Back to the story. My last day in Radio Land was on a dreary, wet Friday in February. I was supposed to start the new teaching gig on Monday. But my mind was racing. I was a mess. And so I did what I often do when I need to think: I drove. I drove all the way to Nauset Beach on the Cape, one of my favorite places in the world (a good 2.5 hours away) and communed with the ocean (I’m a Pisces baby). And that’s when I decided I was going to give it a go: I was going to write full time.

Oh, gawd, even writing that makes me queasy. Man was I green. Clueless. I was smart to go for it, but just about every other decision I made for the next two years after that was pure idiocy. But I suppose I had to go through that to get to this point.

The short of it: I backed out of the new job (and was told in no uncertain terms that I was “unprofessional” — the only time in my entire life that I’ve ever been called that, at least to my face [or via phone]). I moved back home (yes, at 28, when all my friends were getting married, buying houses, and having babies). I rented a room on the cheap from my brother’s computer company and called it my writing studio. I was pretty green when it came to the Internet (this was before Twitter, Facebook, and Google was in its infancy). I lit candles and played jazz and pretended to be an artiste. And then I ran out of money. My parents didn’t charge me rent, but I’m a proud girl and I had bills to pay and I hated living at home (due to my pride) and then 9/11 happened and then I went back to radio full time for about nine months as the station’s promotions director, a gig that was almost the death of me, but I learned a lot. Then I left radio (again), got serious about my copywriting business, started teaching writing at the grad school level (that’s another story), got serious about my creative writing, did NaNoWriMo, started a writers group, wrote about six top to bottom rewrites of novel #1 over nine years, earned my MFA in creative writing, moved out of the house, wrote a second novel, invented cool programs for my business like The Copy Bitch and Rent My Noggin, and embraced the indie writer revolution. (Aren’t you glad I didn’t give the long version?)

And you know what? I’m not going to say I wouldn’t change a thing. There’s a lot I’d like to change. I wish I had gotten serious with my writing in my 20s. I wish I hadn’t spent close to seven years living back home. I wish, I wish, I wish. But it’s done. It’s over. And all of it has informed the writer I am today, and that I wouldn’t change.

So back to my friend. I can sympathize with her fear. I think I’ve spent the last decade more scared than not. But I’ve also never been freer in thought, in the possibilities, and in the control I have over my own life. Sometimes fear is the biggest motivator out there.

What motivates you as a writer?

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Why I Was Afraid to Pursue Fiction in Grad School

Dec. 17th 2010

In Wednesday’s post about my MFA reading list, I mentioned that I was on the nonfiction track when I entered Lesley University’s creative writing program in 2006. I graduated with a multi-genre thesis (nonfiction and fiction) because I ended up being able to work on my fiction as well (during semesters two, three, and four).

Fiction is my first love. It’s pretty much all I write these days (although one of the titles I’m releasing next year will be nonfiction). So why didn’t I declare fiction as my focus when I entered Lesley? Simple. I was afraid. Fear, of course, is seldom logical. Here’s my mostly illogical reasoning for choosing nonfiction (in no particular order):

What I thought going in: Nonfiction felt safer, which might sound crazy since nonfiction is supposed to be about real life, real people, real names. But nonfiction felt safer for me in that the “story” was already set. I wasn’t making up a story for people to judge. I was simply talking about a story that had happened or was happening.

What I learned: stories of “truth” come with their own restrictions and can still be judged. There’s nothing safe about it, if you’re going to do it right.

What I thought going in: The nonfiction program was smaller in terms of the number of students.  I can be a shy person and easily spooked when I’m in situations where I don’t feel confident. I thought it would be easier to get naked (which is what essentially happens when you share your writing in a workshop) with a smaller group of people.

What I learned: smaller groups meant there was more time for everyone to focus on a particular work, including mine. Think nakedness under microscopes.

What I thought going in: I didn’t feel as well read as I should have been in literary fiction. I thought this would affect my ability to workshop pieces and take part in class discussions.

What I learned: One of the most important things I learned in school is to stop making excuses or feeling bad about what you don’t know and, instead, go learn it or go read it. Most of us have gaps in our educations somewhere. It’s okay. You can remedy the situation.

What I thought going in: At the time, I did not have enough confidence in my fiction. At least, not the type of fiction I thought creative writing programs wanted. In my mind, creative writing programs wanted literary writing. Mine was way more commercial, and I was okay with that. (I still am.) I think I feared that my commercial writing would be mocked and that I’d be encouraged to write in a more literary fashion. I guess you could call me stubborn in this case — I didn’t want to become a literary writer just because that’s what was expected in grad school. (Note: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with literary writing; it’s just not my style.)

What I learned: during our one-week residencies, we often attended classes that were led by people outside of our chosen genre. So I got familiar with the fiction faculty, and I think that the majority would have been okay with my more commercial voice. During my second semester, I worked on my novel with someone outside of Lesley whom I had chosen. During my third and fourth semesters, my nonfiction mentor also worked with me in fiction because she wrote in both genres. This worked out great for me because I felt more in control, and, thus, more confident about my work and the process.

It’s because of this last reason that I wouldn’t do anything differently if I had to do it all over again. I really lucked out and got the best of both worlds with almost equal time in both fiction and nonfiction.

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My MFA in Creative Writing Reading Lists

Dec. 15th 2010

In Monday’s post, I talked about the pros and cons of an MFA in Creative Writing, from my point of view. As I mentioned, I received my MFA from Lesley University in 2008, and one of the best things I got out of the program was the reading lists my faculty mentors and I generated for three semesters (we didn’t have a reading list during our final semester, which was our thesis semester).

Writers are always told to read, read, read — and read widely, at that. This is great, smart advice, but there are a lot of books out there from which to choose. So I found it really helpful to have reading lists that my teachers and I developed together based on what I wanted to write.

I need to back up for second: I was accepted into the fiction and nonfiction tracks at Lesley, but I had to choose one or the other when I started the program. I chose nonfiction, for a variety of reasons that I’ll address in Friday’s post. But I ended up graduating with a multi-genre thesis (fiction and nonfiction) since I also worked on fiction in semesters two, three, and four. That’s the reason why the books on my reading lists are primarily nonfiction. In some cases, and for various reasons, my mentors and I made changes mid semester, so I didn’t read every single book on our lists (writing this post reminded me of this fact, which is great –more stuff to add to my Nook library).

My favorite list is from my first semester, where I worked under the very talented Elaine Mar. It’s below.
1. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (pictured to the left). Every writer should read this book, regardless of what you think of Hemingway’s fiction (I feel the same way about King’s On Writing).

2. A Cab by the Door by V. S. Pritchett. Good nonfiction. I picked up some of Pritchett’s short stories, which I REALLY liked.

3. Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. Didion is one of those names all “serious” writers of nonfiction are supposed to read, and for good reason. The woman is great (interestingly, I haven’t read her fiction, which is supposed to be equally as good).

4. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Loved the book, which won the National Book Award in nonfiction. Also loved the one-woman play based on the book, which I saw at The Lyric Stage in Boston.

5. Alice, Let’s Eat by Calvin Trillin – I can’t remember why, but mid-way through the semester, we decided to put the Trillin titles on hold. I need to get back to these.

6. Travels with Alice by Calvin Trillin. Ditto.

7. The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters – Talese is a master. I didn’t read all the portraits, however.

8. A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese. We axed this one; still on my to-read list.

9. The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People by Susan Orlean. She’s one of my favorite writers.

10. Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell. She’s one of those writers more people should know about (she is well known, especially to the NPR and Jon Stewart crowd, but I think she deserves to be a household name).

11. Barrel Fever by David Sedaris. A combination of fiction and nonfiction, when, apparently, Sedaris was trying to figure out what he wanted to write. Insanely great book.

12. Naked by David Sedaris. Ditto. LOVE him (both reading and seeing him live, which I was able to do this past April at Symphony Hall in Boston).

13. Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard. Her essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which I had read a couple of years before, was THE reason I wanted to write nonfiction. The book includes that piece as well as many other brilliant essays, but you can read “The Fourth State of Matter” in the link above for free.

14. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. Lived up to the hype, at least for me.

15. This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Classic grad school fare – you can’t call yourself a “serious” nonfiction writer (or so they say) unless you read his classic along with his brother’s book below. I actually agree that nonfiction writers should check ’em out, not only because they’re interesting reads, but also because it goes to show how one’s perception of events shapes reality.

16. Duke of Deception by Gregory Wolff. See my comment above.

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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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Yes, You’ve Been Accepted. No, You Haven’t.

Oct. 26th 2010

This just happened to me. Back in June, an editor from The Breakwater Review called to tell me my personal essay, “Roar,” had been accepted and would be appearing in the summer issue. (It ended up appearing in September, but that’s a story for another post.)

A few days ago, I got an email from some new editors from The Breakwater Review telling me that they were sorry, but they had to pass on my personal essay, “Roar,” which the publication had already published.

I’m not sharing this to point out their error — The Breakwater Review, like many lit journals, is affiliated with an MFA program, so the editors change over with the school year, and I’m sure they’re trying to get through a ton of subs.

My point is this: different readers, different tastes.

It only takes one yes.

For all you writers out there, keep writing. For all you readers out there, try someone new, and if you love his or her work, tell everyone you know. (On behalf of all writers, we thank you in advance.)

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