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Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I’m No Longer in One

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Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I’m No Longer in One

There’s this thing circulating the Internet, and it’s not a questionably-colored dress or a bear acting human. It’s a tell-all from former MFA professor Ryan Boudinot, who burned out, grew bitter, and perhaps should have quit teaching long before he did. He makes some “shocking” statements, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t. His ending message is certainly a good one: becoming a writer takes a really long time (even after the MFA is over), and that “the instant validation of our apps is an enemy to producing the kind of writing that takes years to complete.”

What’s hitting a nerve with people, I think, are his generalizations (“Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not”) and his snobbishly dismissive tone (“I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare”).

When he talks about the Real Deal, I’m fairly certain he means a writer of literary fiction. He seems like the type to look down on those writing YA or sci-fi/fantasy (or any number of other genres), which are all, in my mind, perfectly legitimate avenues for Real Deal writers to take.  (And yeah, I’m currently working with an agent on two middle-grade fantasy novels, so you see where I’m coming from.)

I suppose, in a way though, I know how he feels. I was a student in an MFA program, and I came away with some of my own bitter and frustrated feelings. And, so, here is my own tell-all…

Bears Acting Human is a ridiculous Twitter feed I follow… don’t judge! photo credit

Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I’m No Longer in One

My MFA program did not teach me what I most wanted to learn.

I decided to get an MFA because I wanted to be a novelist, and I knew I needed help with that. My MFA program certainly made me a better writer as I honed my craft through short stories, but I did not learn how to write a novel. Rarely did we discuss plot in our classes, and never did we discuss how to structure or approach a novel. In the end, I had to spend several years after graduation figuring that stuff out on my own. I wrote a few practice novels, I started reading books about writing, and now, more than five years after getting my MFA, I’m finally feeling more confident about writing novels.

My MFA program discouraged me from what might be my calling.

In my MFA program, writing genre fiction was frowned upon. Oh sure, if you wanted to annoy your professor you could write fantasy or mystery — no one was going to point-blank say you couldn’t. But it was recommended that you write realistic fiction. I suppose young adult was considered so beneath us supposedly-serious writers that it wasn’t even discussed.

While in my MFA program, I wrote stories about teenagers and young adults, but of course they were adult stories… right? No one ever suggested that they might be YA. And yet, every single novel I’ve written has turned out to be YA or Middle-Grade, even if I didn’t intend it to be at the beginning.  It took me a while to realize and accept that writing YA and MG is my calling.  I wish it hadn’t been so taboo in my MFA program so I could have started writing for this age group earlier.

My MFA program did not focus on reading in a helpful way.

In my MFA program, students took literature classes and workshop classes. The literature ones were what you’d expect if you ever took a college lit class: reading critically and writing papers with titles such as “Naturalism in Djuna Barnes’s Short Stories” or “Finding Greek Mythology in Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat.” (Those are actual titles of two papers I wrote.) In the workshop classes, we read and critiqued each other’s work. Never were we assigned to read books on writing (though I now realize many helpful ones exist).  Never were we instructed on how to read like a writer instead of like a critic — noticing how novels are structured and how their parts work to create a whole. I would have liked to have learned that in my MFA program. These are things I had to teach myself later on.

books

There’s more than one way to read a book.

My MFA Program did not teach me how to get published.

Ryan Boudinot says students don’t need help getting published in this “Kindle/e-book/self-publishing environment,” but that’s not true. Yes there are more options these days, but that means it’s more confusing than ever to know which publishing path to pursue. I came out of my MFA program thinking I should probably get an agent but having very little idea what that actually meant and how to go about doing it. I read and researched and made many embarrassing mistakes…  How helpful it would have been if this topic had been discussed more while I was in my MFA program.

My MFA program helped me find a community of writers… but I could have done that my own.

If I hadn’t gotten my MFA, I never would have met Jennifer Stewart Wallace, founder of Burlesque Press. Besides being super fun and a great friend, Jeni has given me feedback on multiple projects and invaluable advice when I go moping to her with my writing dilemmas. She and some of my other MFA friends form an inspirational and supportive writing community that I’m proud to be a part of.

However, I have also created my own writing communities. When I lived in Seattle, I took a YA workshop class at the Hugo House and have stayed in touch with several of the other students, two of whom recently gave me incredible feedback on my latest novel. And here in Minneapolis, I started a YA writing group, and our meetings are perhaps just as helpful as the MFA workshops of yore that I paid to attend.

Jeni and Eva wearing Burlesque Press t-shirts.

One of the best things to come out of my MFA was the inspirational and awesome people I met — like Jeni Stewart Wallace, founder of Burlesque Press.

Whenever people ask me if my MFA was worth it, I just don’t know what to say.

Without my MFA, I probably wouldn’t have met some of my wonderful friends who comprise a writing community I’ll likely be a part of for the rest of my life.  But, like I said, it’s possible to create your own writing community without paying for an MFA.

My MFA helped me to become a better writer, but I might have been able to do that on my own by reading good books on craft and by taking classes at places like the Hugo House in Seattle or The Loft in Minneapolis.

My MFA helped motivate me, but it also made me doubt myself.  It helped me explore different writing styles, but it also made me confused about the type of writing I want to do.

In the end, I graduated my MFA program thinking “OK, now I should have the skills to sit down and write a publishable novel.” But I didn’t.  It took another couple years of practicing and learning to get to the place where I am now.  This, essentially, was Ryan Boudinot’s experience, too.  So, I agree with him:  becoming a writer takes a long time, and people don’t usually emerge from an MFA program ready to write a best-selling or prize-winning novel.  But I can’t help wondering:  couldn’t MFA programs help students out just a little bit more?  There are a lot of things MFA programs could be teaching that they’re not.

But perhaps I had to focus on short stories first to hone my craft.  Perhaps I wasn’t mature enough at twenty-five to start writing novels.  Maybe my MFA Program gave me a place to grow up.  Maybe I had to do all that learning later, on my own.

Ultimately, I think the best thing my MFA did for me was it became an announcement to the world that I am serious about writing.  I spent money on this writing degree, and damn if I’m not going to put it to use!  And this is where I disagree with Ryan Boudinot the most. He recommends that “anyone serious about writing books spend at least a few years keeping it secret.”  But I only began to make real progress when I proclaimed to the world what my writing goals were.  Now, I have no choice but to work my ass off until I reach them.

Eva, Tawni, and friends, while traveling in Mexico.

Without my MFA, I never would have met these lovely ladies or taught at a conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (where this picture was taken).

Girl Talk & Steering the Craft Exercise 9

Girl Talk & Steering the Craft Exercise 9

When I was in middle school, I read all the girly series books like Baby-sitter’s Club, Sweet Valley Twins, Pen Pals. I also read the Girl Talk books by L. E. Blair, which were somehow related to the Girl Talk board game (a glorified version of truth or dare, but if you refused to answer the question or perform the dare you had a wear a red zit sticker for the rest of the game). Ahh, the early 90’s…

The Girl Talk series was about four friends: a bubbly redhead, a bookish Native American, a preppy blonde hockey player, and the new girl in school who has a punky style. The thing I remember about the books is that some of the chapters were literally just phone conversations between two of the girls. If I still own any Girl Talk books, they’re in a box in my mom’s attic, so I’ll have to make up an example. A chapter might look something like this:

Sabrina: So, are you going to go to the school dance?

Allison: I don’t think my parents will let me.

Sabrina: Ally, come on. You have to! We’re all going!

Allison: Well… What if no one wants to dance with me?

And it would go on like this for four or five pages. Not exactly high-quality writing, but I didn’t seem to mind as an eleven-year-old.

The first book in the Girl Talk series by L. E. Blair.

 

I thought of the Girl Talk books when I was at my “craft book club” meeting on Monday. We meet once a month to discuss a book on writing, and this month we read Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft.

Steering the Craft is compilation of ten writing exercises (most with multiple parts, so it’s more like 15 or 20), along with explanations and examples. A few of the exercises were frustrating (perhaps that’s a good thing, though?), and the examples were somewhat antiquated for my taste (Dickens, Austen, etc.), but overall it was fun and interesting to sit down every other morning and play with elements of storywriting like point of view or sentence structure.

Some of the exercises Le Guin recommends for groups, so my book club chose to do Exercise 9 Part 1 together.

Exercise 9: Part 1: “The goal of this exercise is to tell a story and present two characters through dialogue alone. Write a page or two… of pure dialogue. Write it like a play, with A and B as the characters’ names. No stage directions. No descriptions of the characters. Nothing but what A says and what B says. Everything the reader knows about who they are, where they are, and what’s going on, comes through what they say.”

In a way, it’s like writing a Girl Talk phone conversation!

I thought this was a useful exercise because I’ve been struggling lately with the dialogue in both of the novels I’m working on. I worry that my characters all talk in the same way. I worry that the dialogue sounds strange or stilted. These are both things Le Guin tells writers to watch out for. In Exercise 9, she suggests asking questions such as, “Could we tell the two voices apart without the A and B signals, and if not, how might they be more differentiated? Do people actually talk this way?”

Without further ado, below is my attempt at Exercise 9, which I wrote in about fifteen minutes at the Dunn Brothers coffee shop while my fellow book club members wrote theirs. And now I dare you to try the exercise for yourself. If you don’t, you’ll have to wear a red zit sticker for the rest of the day!

Me talking on my old cell phone.  (Also pictured:  my friend Chana.)  Mardi Gras 2008.

Me talking on my old cell phone. (Also pictured: my friend Chana.) Mardi Gras 2008.

 

Eva’s Attempt at Exercise 9, aka “Girl Talk”:

A: OK, so who’s going to do it?

B: Duh. You are.

A: Why do I have to?

B: Because. You have a bigger bag.

A: Yeah, some people actually bring backpacks to school.

B: And some people aren’t nerds. Anyways, if I go in there, the dude at the counter will watch me the whole time. He won’t notice you.

A: What’s that supposed to mean?

B: Nothing, god. You know guys stare at me. They can’t help themselves.

A: OK, look at what you’re wearing. Maybe if you didn’t put your boobs out on display.

B: My boobs are what got us beer last time.

A: Yeah, and we had to sit that creepy guy’s apartment and drink it.

B: He was harmless.

A: It was stupid of us. He was creepy and old and we’re lucky we didn’t get raped.

B: He weight like a hundred pounds. I could’ve taken. Easily.

A: We’re getting our own beer from now on.

B: Exactly. So go in there and get it. It’ll be totally fine. Just walk back — you know where it is, right?

A: OK, but you’re coming in, too. Go talk to the guy at the counter. Distract him with your boobs or something.

B: OK, whatever, fine. Are you ready?

A: Yeah. Let’s go.

Girl Talk board game.

Girl Talk board game.

An Innapropriate Wedding Dress & The Most Important Thing I’ll Ever Write

An Innapropriate Wedding Dress & The Most Important Thing I’ll Ever Write

Saturday night my fiancé and I had nightmares about our upcoming wedding. He and I both dreamed it was the day of the wedding, and we’d forgotten to plan the ceremony or write our vows.

In my version of the dream, I quickly put on my dress and walked up the aisle, unsure of what would happen.  The next thing I knew, I was waking up alone in a hotel room with no memory of the ceremony or the reception. On the floor was my wedding dress, which I then realized had a plunging neckline and inappropriate slits up both thighs. This was probably worse than the dream I had a few weeks ago in which I’d forgotten to buy a wedding dress so I had to wear an over-sized tacky Christmas sweater instead.

When the real morning came and we woke from our stress dreams, we decided it was time to finish planning our ceremony. So we sat down to pick the readings and write our vows.

I’m a writer, and I’ve had a lot of practice writing various things: stories, emails, novels, research papers. But this was different. This handful of sentences — the promises I’m making for the rest of my life — is one of the most important things I’ll ever write. It was exciting. And a little scary.

From the Huffington Post article, “Inappropriate Wedding Dresses.” The dress in my dream looked rather like this but without the boots and hat.

I think we both dreamed about the wedding because we’re in the process of sorting out the RSVPs and forcing decisions from those who haven’t RSVP’ed yet. I’m looking forward to knowing the complete guest list because then I get to do the thing I’ve been excited about doing ever since we decided to have a wedding: the seating arrangements.

I know that sounds weird. But to a girl who likes order and control, assigning seats is so much fun. I have some ideas of people who don’t know each other yet, but who I think should be friends. I can seat them together and play matchmaker! I’m imagining conversations and the way personalities might mesh as I place people at various tables.

Maybe there’s a reason why this is fun for me besides the fact that I’m an organization freak. If you think about it, what is fiction writing besides putting characters together in various situations and imagining how they might interact? I’m playing friend-matchmaker for the night of my wedding, but as a writer I play matchmaker (and enemy-maker) every day with my characters. I get to put people together in awkward situations, fill them with alcohol, and force them to interact. (We can all agree that this sounds pretty similar to a wedding reception, right?) The only difference is that in fiction, these interactions often lead to some sort of conflict, and I’m hoping that our wedding will be mostly conflict-free.

After all, this wedding isn’t the climax of my story with Paul. It’s only just the beginning.

No, I've never been married before.  This is me acting in a play nearly 10 years ago.

No, I’ve never been married before. This is me acting in a play nearly 10 years ago.

I Would Totally Read Historical Fiction About These Awesome Ladies

I Would Totally Read Historical Fiction About These Awesome Ladies

*Check out my modern fairy tale “Frog Boy” in Issue Zero of Mystic Illuminations!*

I love podcasts. Podcasts have helped me enjoy cross-country drives and what would normally have been excruciating traffic jams. They have enabled me to run longer than I ever thought possible (for me that’s 3 miles) and actually made me look forward to my evening commute. Generally, I listen to This American Life and Radiolab, with some Moth, Risk, and Serial thrown in there.

I also started listening to Stuff You Missed in History Class a few years ago. This is an odd choice for me because history was always one of my least favorite subjects. Oh sure, I liked learning about Henry the VIII and his wives, or how the ancient Egyptians mummified their corpses, but the history I learned in school tended to be about war, and I don’t understand war. Literally, I cannot comprehend it. We kill people? To solve problems? We still do this today? My brain refuses to wrap itself around that concept, and therefore whenever anyone starts talking about war, my brain shuts down and I retain nothing.

Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Fry host the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast. photo credit.

Luckily for me, Holly and Tracy, the plucky hosts of Stuff You Missed in History Class, do war-related topics only occasionally (and I usually skip those). Instead they discuss topics such as the history of makeup, or narcolepsy, or Spam. They have episodes about historical mysteries, crimes, tragedies, and hoaxes. (Around Halloween they do gruesome stuff, such as the Dyotlov Pass Incident and the Villisca Ax Murders.) And they have many biographical episodes about fascinating historical figures such as Bela Legossi (star of the Dracula films) and Victor Lustig, the con man who “sold” the Eiffel Tower.

And these biographical episodes are often about fascinating women. History is notoriously a boys’ club, so it’s awesome to hear about women of the past who truly made history.

Yesterday was manuscript wish list (#MSWL) day on Twitter, when literary agents tweet about the types of books they’d like to represent.  Well, I’m creating my own reader’s wish list.  I like to read historical fiction every now and again, and I’m putting out the word that if good novels exist about any of these women, I want to read them. And if you are a writer of historical fiction, you should seriously consider writing a novel about one of these intriguing ladies. I would totally read it.  Their stories provide the jumping off point for some incredible fiction.

So, without further ado…

Hetty Green, “The Witch of Wall Street” photo credit

 

I Would Totally Read a Historical Fiction Novel About…

Hetty Green, “The Witch of Wall Street”: A businesswoman in a time when only men did business, Hetty was regarded as the richest woman of the late 1800’s. She was more miserly than Scrooge McDuck and went to insane lengths to save money, such as wearing the same black dress every day and washing only the dirtiest parts of it (the hems) to save on soap.

Sister Aimee Semple McPherson: The most publicized Christian evangelist in a time when most preachers were men, Aimee founded her own church in 1927 and led large faith-healing demonstrations all around the country.  There was also her strange disappearance and rumors of adultery…

Katie Sandwina, “The Glamorous Strongwoman”: Born in 1884, Katie was a six-foot tall circus strongwoman who could lift 300 pounds over her head — something the leading strongman of the time couldn’t do, making her literally the strongest person in the world. She married an acrobat, and her performances often included lifting him and their two children over her head.

Edna St Vincent Millay: A playwright and poet who won the Pulitzer in 1923, Millay was openly bi-sexual and known for her feminist activism and many love affairs.  She had an open marriage and a drinking problem.

Princess Alexandra of Bavaria: Most likely suffering from a mental illness (she had a fixation with cleanliness and would only wear white), the princess believed that she had swallowed a glass piano and had to move carefully so it wouldn’t break inside of her. As it turns out, she is not the only person in history to suffer from a “glass delusion.” She never married, and in 1850 she began a prolific literary career.  She later became an Abbess.

 

And of course, there are many more amazing women of history that I would happily read about.  In the meantime, be sure to check out the Stuff You Missed in History Podcast episodes on the women above!

Katie Sandwina, "The Glamorous Strongwoman."  photo creidt.

Katie Sandwina, “The Glamorous Strongwoman.” photo credit

 

 

I’ve Been Reprimanded…Again, or, Why Your Writing Won’t Please Everyone

I’ve Been Reprimanded…Again, or, Why Your Writing Won’t Please Everyone

Well, I’ve been reprimanded again for my writing. Apparently some people thought that my last blog post was saying that I have a poop fetish. This is not even remotely true. OK, yes, I have in the past written about my idea for a TV show about animals pooping. (It’s actually a really good idea.) And yes, I did suggest that people could use the “pooping back and forth” graphic on their Valentine’s Day cards, but that was (mostly) a joke. However, in no way do I want poop to be involved in sexy times. Poop belongs in the toilet, not the bedroom… OK, glad we cleared that up.

This is not the first time people have gotten upset about things I’ve written. It’s easy to see how it can happen with my blog posts. I write them fairly quickly and post them without a lot of time for editing or thinking. Plus, I’m writing about myself, my friends, my family. Sometimes I inadvertently say something offensive or inappropriate in my quest to be entertaining and truthful.

I was reprimanded.

I was reprimanded.

 

But I’ve also made people upset with my fiction, which I have normally read and revised and edited to the point of nausea. The first story I ever got published (“Goddesses“) was a short piece I wrote as a college senior.  The story came from a writing exercises in which I tried to imagine an awkward interaction between one of my best friends (a free-spirited single mother who had recently become a doula) and my conservative, middle-aged boss. When my friend read it she called me, upset, saying she didn’t like the way I’d portrayed her.

“It’s not you,” I tried to explain. “It’s a character. It’s fiction.”

“She was basically me.”

“She was inspired by you. But she’s not you.” I wondered though, if the tables were turned, would I make such a distinction?  I had used a line of dialogue that was, verbatim, something my friend had said.

“Well, you made her sound ditzy, and it’s going to give people a bad impression of doulas.”

I told her not to worry, the number of people who would actually read this story was tiny in the grand scheme of things. But she didn’t want my rationalizations. She wanted an apology. So I said I was sorry.

The picture that went along with my story, “Goddesses” in Richmond’s Style Magazine.

 

I wasn’t really sorry about what I had written. But I was sorry to have upset my friend. And that’s the scary thing about writing. Sometimes we hurt people with it. Sometimes what we write is misinterpreted. Sometimes people think you have a poop fetish.

So what do we do? Do we stop writing? Do we try to monitor what we write so that we don’t ever hurt or offend anyone?

We’re never going to make everyone happy with the things we write. That’s hard for me, as a lifelong people-pleaser. But I’m learning to accept it, along with the fact that sometimes people are going to misinterpret what I write. I can’t explain to every reader, “what I meant was…” or “but you weren’t supposed to think I have a poop fetish.”

When I write my blog posts, I try to monitor myself so that I don’t say anything too inappropriate about my friends or family. But I know I’ll probably get reprimanded again at some point. It’s one of the hazards of the job. And when my first book is published, I know there will be some good reviews and some bad ones. The important thing is that I’m happy with the book and feel like it’s my best work.

You can’t please everyone. So you might as well try to please yourself.

I am quite pleased with what my fiance got me for Valentine's Day:  a King Cake!  Happy Mardi Gras!

I am quite pleased with my Valentine’s Day present: a King Cake! Happy Mardi Gras!

Pooping Back and Forth: Love Is Weird and Sometimes Shitty — an Exercise

Pooping Back and Forth:  Love Is Weird and Sometimes Shitty — an Exercise

Well, it’s Valentine’s Day on Saturday, so I thought today’s post would be about love, romance, obsession, sex… you know, all that stuff.

I just finished Miranda July’s new novel The First Bad Man. To keep from gushing too much about how weird and eccentrically awesome it was, I’ll just say:  no one does love and obsession and sex quite the way she does. After all, this is the woman who brought us “pooping back and forth forever,” which you have to admit is strangely intimate and sexual and … dare I say it?… romantic.

In The First Bad Man, middle-aged Cheryl is in love with a man twenty years her senior, who is in love with someone else.  Then Cheryl gets a young housemate, Clee, to whom she ends up playing the role of enemy, then mother, then lover.  To understand how that happens, you’ll have to read the book.

July is a master of weird love.  In her short story “Majesty” from the collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, the narrator has a dream about Prince William in which, “he had lifted up the back of my skirt and was nuzzling his face between my buns. He was doing this because he loved me. It was a kind of loving I had never known was possible.”

Again:  weird, and yet… there’s something about this dream that is so true to human emotion.  I guess what I mean is, love and relationships are complex and strange, and our writing should reflect that.

Miranda July is an author, actress, film-maker, and all-around talent. She wrote, directed, and starred in Me and You and Everyone We Know — the film of “pooping back and forth” fame.

 

I’ve always been interested in the expression of love in eccentric, creepy, or unexpected ways. I love the juxtaposition of romance with something dark or disconcerting. Like Courtney Love sang, “I love him so much it turns to hate.” Haven’t we all felt that at some point? There’s a fine line between the two extremes.

And speaking of Love, how about her late husband, Kurt Kobain, who sang, “her milk is my shit. My shit is her milk.” Like pooping back and forth, there’s something romantic there, buried beneath the yuck.

That’s what I was going for when I wrote this poem, published by Burlesque Press two Valentine’s Days ago. I wanted to combine gross and creepy with sex and love. Don’t they often go together anyway?

This is apparently the symbol for “pooping back and forth.” Feel free to use it on your Valentine’s Day cards.

 

When you’re writing, there are so many ways to show love and obsession and sexual tension besides two people staring into each other’s eyes a la Twilight.  Sometimes it’s the way a character describes another that shows love in surprising ways.  For example, in Miranda July’s story “Making Love in 2003,”  the narrator first meets Steven Krause and describes him this in way: “His face was an animal face, a cat-giraffe face that said everything in the absence of language. His clothes were careless and perfect, just areas that loosely mapped his nakedness.”

Or take Beck, for instance, (who recently — and deservedly — won a Grammy).   In his old classic “Nitemare [sic] Hippy Girl” he sings that the girl has flaky skin and is a “melted avocado on the shelf.”  Yet her skinny fingers are fondling his world. She’s a “goddess milking her time for all that it’s worth.” He’s talking about a weird kind of romance.  Most romances are.

Beck was probably my lover in an alternate universe.

Beck was probably my lover in an alternate universe.

 

And so here’s my challenge to you on the eve of Valentine’s Day weekend. Can you write a story or a poem or song about love and romance but show it in eccentric or creepy or unexpected way? After all, it isn’t just about hearts and flowers and candle-lit dinners. Most of the time, love is weird… and sometimes shitty.

 

“Nitemare Hippy Girl”

by Beck Hansen

She took me off my guard with disappointment
I got sucked inside of her apartment
She’s got dried-up flowers, flaky skin
A beaded necklace and a bottle of gin

She’s a nightmare Hippy girl
With her skinny fingers fondling my world
She’s a whimsical, tragical beauty
Self-conscious and a little bit moody

It’s a new age letdown in my face
She’s so spaced out and there ain’t no space
She’s got marijuana on the bathroom towel
I’m caught in her vortex
She’s changing’ my style

She’s a nightmare Hippy girl
With her skinny fingers fondling my world
She’s a whimsical, tragical beauty
Uptight and a little bit snooty

She’s a magical, sparkling’ tease
She’s a rainbow choking’ the breeze
Yo, she’s busting’ out onto the scene
With nightmare bogus poetry
She’s a melted avocado on the shelf
She’s the science of herself
She’s spazzing out on a cosmic level
And she’s meditating with the devil
She’s cooking salad for breakfast
She’s got tofu the size of Texas
She’s a witness to her own glory
She’s a never-ending story
She’s a frolicking depression
She’s a self-inflicted obsession
She’s got a thousand lonely husbands
She’s playing’ footsie in another dimension
She’s a goddess milking her time
For all that it’s worth

The 4 Stages of Writing Mastery, or, Crap! I Don’t Know What I’m Doing!

The 4 Stages of Writing Mastery, or, Crap!  I Don’t Know What I’m Doing!

My first year out of college I taught math at a low-income high school in New Orleans where there weren’t enough textbooks or even enough desks. But I showed up on the first day of school with high expectations for myself and my students. I was going to change lives! I was going to be the best teacher they’d ever had!

With exactly five weeks of Teach For America training under my belt, I thought I knew how to help my students succeed. But, as it turned out, there was a ton I didn’t know, including the fact that I really didn’t yet have the skills necessary to teach in such an intense environment. I found this out quickly enough. On my third day, two of my students got in a violent fist fight, and I was powerless to stop them. As one of the boys slammed his fist into the other one’s face, I realized: crap, I have no idea what I’m doing.

My very first classroom.

My very first classroom.

 

Later, I wrote a story about the fight. At that point I was still under the impression that teaching would be my career and writing would be my hobby. But as time went on, I wondered if I should focus on writing instead. Unlike trying to teach students who refused to sit down and listen to me, the words would do what I wanted them to do — wouldn’t they?.

So, after two difficult years of teaching, I quit and dedicated myself to writing. I’d always been praised for my creative writing in school, and I figured I’d be able to pound out a good novel in a year and be a successful novelist in no time. I worked as a secretary, and then as an orthodontic assistant, and since these jobs were less demanding physically, mentally, and emotionally than teaching, I was able to write a novel in my free time.

As I was writing this novel, I felt pretty good about it. It was about a high school girl very similar to me with a friend who was very similar to my friend Nikki. Things happened that were very similar to things that had happened to me and Nikki. It was a literary coming of age story with beautifully poignant descriptions and quiet-but-true moments. At least, that’s what I was going for.

I finished the novel, and at first I was proud of it. I sent it off to some agents and ended up getting tricked into paying $150 for a scam editing service which did me the disservice of telling me the manuscript was great.

To be clear: it was not great.

I haven’t actually looked back at this novel in nearly a decade because I’m embarrassed to do so. But I’m pretty sure that it is boring and poorly-written. A thinly-veiled autobiography with a very thin plot.

Back then I didn’t think it was terrible, but I did begin to realize that it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. I compared it to the books I loved, and mine came up lacking. But why? I knew what a good book was. Why hadn’t I been able to write one?

That’s when I realized: crap, I don’t know what I’m doing. And I started looking into the MFA program at University of New Orleans.

Eva and Nikki.

Eva and Nikki.

 

In her awesome book Writing Irresistible Kid Lit, Mary Kole says:

…people trying to master something move through four stages, from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence,” to “conscious competence,” to “unconscious competence.” (You can read more about this idea here.)

With teaching, it only took a few days in the classroom for me to move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, and that’s pretty much where I stayed. I was very aware of all the ways I was sucking as a teacher.

With writing, though, I moved very slowly from unconscious to conscious incompetence. Even after getting my MFA, I was still under the insane delusion that I’d be able to sit down and let a fully-formed and amazing novel flow out of my brain in a few month’s time. I’d learned about language and mechanics in my program, and I’d certainly improved my short story writing, but I still had no idea how to create a novel. (To be fair, I did write a novel in a few months right after grad school, but this one, too, I have been afraid to go back and look at.)

It wasn’t until I turned thirty and quit teaching for the second time and (for the second time) fully dedicated myself to writing, that I actually became aware of how incompetent I truly was. I’d been writing for years, and I still didn’t know how to plot a novel! Writing a decent book seemed like a monumental task that I finally realized I was ill-equipped for.

But I did it anyway. I wrote a novel. And then another one. And then another one. And then another one. (Mary Kole also mentions that writers may need to write “a million bad words” before their stuff is good enough to be published.)  In other words, I honed my skills and slowly gathered experience.

In addition to writing, I also read craft books for the first time. I attended conference panels about plot and characterization. I read books with an eye for what worked about them.

And all of this has paid off because I finally feel like I know what I’m doing… at least somewhat. When writing my most recent novel, for the first time I felt keenly aware of what good novels need, and aware that I was attempting to craft my story in the same way. The women in my writing group described the chapters they read as having “authority.” They felt like they were in “good hands.”

Competent writing makes the reader feel as if they are in "good hands."

Competent writing makes the reader feel as if they are in “good hands.”  (Drawing by me!)

 

Could it be that I’m creeping into the third stage:  conscious competence?  I’m producing good writing, but I’m highly focused on the technical craft.  These days, writing doesn’t seem like a free-flowing creative activity.  It seems a lot more like work…  but it’s working!

It only took me ten years to get to this point. And I imagine that it will be at least another ten years before a competent novel might flow out of me unconsciously. I suppose it takes a lot of work and a lot of words to get to the point where it all seems natural.

 

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