Why I Was Afraid to Pursue Fiction in Grad School

17/12/10 9:00 AM

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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2 Comments on “Why I Was Afraid to Pursue Fiction in Grad School”

  1. Sarah W Says:

    Fear and doubt kept me from pursuing a writing degree at all. I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I’d tried. But I’m in a good place now, I think—it just took me a little longer to get here.

  2. Robyn Says:

    Took me forever before I committed to applying. I definitely don’t think it’s a must have in order to be a successful writer, that’s for sure. And yes — you’re definitely in a good place! 🙂