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Monthly Archives: April 2017

How I Chose My MFA Program, or, Doing Your Research

How I Chose My MFA Program, or, Doing Your Research

It’s a funny story how I decided to get my MFA in Fiction Writing.  Spoiler alert:  it does not involve research.

I was twenty-four years old and in my second year as a full-time math teacher when I stopped by a little bookstore near my house in Uptown New Orleans and my eyes fell on a paperback called Pretty Little Dirty by Amanda Boyden.

I didn’t know Amanda Boyden then. I didn’t know that she lived in New Orleans and that one day I would sit with her and her husband at a bar in Spain, or that, a few years later, we would have margaritas together in Mexico. I didn’t know I would go to parties, and even a wedding, at her house in Mid-City New Orleans. All I saw was the skinny girl on the cover of the book, her arm cocked like she might be holding a cigarette, her face scribbled out with fluorescent yellow highlighter, and I knew it was just the sort of thing I liked to read: a literary coming-of-age story.

So I bought the book and devoured it. Then I read the author bio and learned that Amanda Boyden taught a class on fiction writing at the University of New Orleans.

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It was around this time that I started thinking to myself, gosh, do I really want to be a math teacher for the rest of my life? The answer was no. What I really wanted to do was write novels, but I’d always assumed that was something people did in their spare time – it wasn’t  a viable career option. (And, to be honest, I still think that’s somewhat accurate… at least for a lot of people.)

The problem was, teaching left me emotionally, physically, and mentally drained. It was difficult to find the energy to write in the little spare time I had. So I made a bold move: I quit my teaching job and embarked on a series of random jobs (barista, receptionist, orthodontic assistant) that gave me more time and energy for writing.

That summer, I sat down to write what I hoped to be a literary coming-of-age novel. When I finished the last sentence, I was elated. A day later, I reread the whole thing and was completely dismayed. The book wasn’t good – I knew it wasn’t good – but I had no idea how to make it better.

That’s when I decided to contact Amanda Boyden.

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Author Amanda Boyden

 

I’ve since looked to see if I could find the original email I sent to Amanda, along with her reply. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I can’t, but I know I said I’d enjoyed her book, and then I explained that it was the sort of thing I hoped to write, but I was having trouble figuring out how exactly to write a novel in the first place. I was thinking maybe she and I could get together for coffee sometime to talk about writing.

Yes, I realize now how naïve that sounds. So I don’t blame Amanda for how she responded. I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something along the lines of, no, I don’t have time to meet with you, but maybe you should check out the MFA program at The University of New Orleans.

And here’s where I’ll admit that up until then, I didn’t know there was even such a thing as a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. (It does sound rather absurd, right?  A Masters degree in creative writing?!)  I realize that might make twenty-five-year-old Eva sound a bit dumb, but, to be honest,twenty-five-year-old Eva was a bit dumb.

Twenty-five-year-old Eva was also excited. Going to school was something I’d always exceled at. No wonder I was having trouble writing a good novel: I needed to go back to school and learn how to do it properly!

So I went online and found information about the University of New Orleans “low residency” program, which sounded cool. In the program, students took classes online during the school year and then did intensive summer abroad sessions. That sounded good to me. Online classes meant I could keep my day job at the orthodontist’s office, and I hadn’t studied abroad as an undergraduate, so this would be my chance to do some traveling.

I’m embarrassed to say that I did no other research. None.  I didn’t look to see if there were other MFA programs that were more highly rated, or that perhaps focused specifically on novel-writing. I didn’t look into ways to get my tuition paid for. I didn’t even realize that there was also an in-person MFA program at the University of New Orleans I could have applied to.

I’ve never been a fan of research, and I’ve always been a bit trigger-happy when I’m excited about something. At the time, I honestly didn’t think that anyone would pay for my MFA. I didn’t realize that many schools offer teaching assistantships – something that would have been smart for me to do because not only would my tuition have been covered, but I would have gotten experience teaching at the college level.

Instead, without researching any other programs, I applied for the low-residency MFA at the University of New Orleans, and I was accepted. The following summer, I headed to Madrid, and my Fiction Workshop professors were Amanda Boyden and her husband, Joseph.

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My first year in the MFA program, Amanda Boyden gave a reading while doing THIS.

 

It’s hard to say whether or not I regret making such a quick decision. Yes, I did have to take out a student loan to pay for my degree, but I paid if off pretty quickly. And it’s true I could have gotten a teaching assistantship that led to a college teaching job, but I don’t want to be a teacher (remember?) And I probably could have gone to a more “prestigious” school, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would have liked that any better.

Besides, so many good things have come out of my MFA from UNO. I met some wonderful (and eccentric!) people, and I had some amazing travel experiences. If not for my MFA from UNO, I never would have become involved with Burlesque Press or gotten to spend a month in Mexico on a writing fellowship.

In this case, my utter lack of research didn’t seem to hurt me. In other words, I got lucky.

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Here I am in Madrid with fellow writer Jeni Stewart(now Jennifer Wallace), who has become a very dear friend and resource.

 

I’m thinking about all of this as I prepare to query agents with the novel I recently finished revising. In the past I’ve been trigger-happy about contacting agents, and I’ve learned my lesson. This is one case where I am definitely doing my research. I am spending time on Twitter and agency websites and Manuscript Wishlist. I’m reading agent blogs and interviews. I’m making a spreadsheet of possible agents and revising my query letter over and over again. I know that when it comes to querying agents, it pays to do your homework.

My MFA didn’t teach me anything about querying agents. That’s something I learned on my own after a lot of practice, and probably in part because I did it wrong the first time around.

And, in a way, that’s how I’ve learned to write as well.

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Here I am in Madrid for the running of the bulls.  There’s a story in this picture.  There definitely is.

Shut Up About Your Rocket, or, Why You Need Writer Friends

Shut Up About Your Rocket, or, Why You Need Writer Friends

My husband won’t shut up about rockets. For the past few months he’s been designing and printing model rockets on his 3-D printer (because yes, he has one of those), and he is OBSESSED.

“Can I show you my launch pad?” he says, coming at me with a plastic box spewing red and blue wires out the back.

I sigh because this is the fourth time in past few hours that he’s wanted to show me something rocket-related. I know he’s proud of his handiwork and wants to show it to someone, so I say sure. He then goes into a detailed description about all the buttons and wires while my eyes glaze over.

In fact, a normal conversation these days (if you can call this a conversation) might go something like this:

ME: “So I read an article about how to transition your baby out of swaddling.”

HIM: “I finished fiber-glassing my rocket last night.”

ME: “I think she might be going through a growth spurt. She was cranky and eating a lot today.”

HIM: “Now I just need to sand it and get the wireless in my raspberry pi zero working.”

It’s both funny and sad how I can talk of seemingly nothing but our baby these days, and Paul can talk of nothing but his baby, the rocket. Of course, there is one difference: Paul actually cares about our baby, whereas I care not a whit about his rockets.

 

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Paul with a model rocket he built two summers ago.  He’s working on MUCH larger ones now.

 

That’s why I was excited when he found out about a local model rocket club that meets once a month. “Dear god, please go,” I told him. “Please make friends with people who are interested in rockets.”

We were taking the baby on a walk around the block when I said this, and then I added, “I mean, I don’t talk to you about my writing.  I talk to other writers about my writing. In fact, I’m going to dinner with a friend in a few days, and we plan to discuss the novel I’m working on because she just finished reading it.”

Paul said he felt bad that he hadn’t read my latest novel.

“It’s really okay,” I told him. “I have writer friends for that exact purpose.” I told him about the time I saw Joyce Carol Oates speak. “She said that her husband never read any of her books, and she liked it that way. They had plenty of things they shared, but her writing wasn’t one of them.”

Paul then apologized for talking excessively about rockets. “But I wish I had friends I could talk to about my interests,” he said, looking forlorn.

I feel bad for him. His interests (theoretical physics, model rockets, extremely sophisticated mathematics, 3-D printing) are ones that not many people share. He sometimes feels isolated and alone in his endeavors. And when he makes an exciting breakthrough, no one is able to appreciate it with him.

Again, this is why I’m really excited for him to go to the rocket club.

I’m also super grateful for the friends I have who share my interests.

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Paul does share my interest in the baby, but he has had to tell me to shut up about baby sleep schedules and other such things that I’ve researched to ad nauseam.

 

For example, I’ve recently started hanging out with other new moms. We’ll meet at each other’s houses and let our babies roll around on the floor while we discuss sleep schedules and cloth diapers. They understand when I show up late, with spit up stains on my shirt, and it’s nice to have some low-key adult interaction during the day. I read somewhere once that there can be nothing lonelier than staying at home with your baby.

But you know what else can be lonely? Writing. It’s inherently a solo venture. Which is why I think it’s so important to have people you can talk talk to about your writing (or talk to about writing in general). People with whom you can work through your ideas. People who will read your first draft. People who can sympathize with you about that rejection letter or that scene that just won’t come together.

I’ve found my writer friends in all sorts of places. Some are from my MFA program. Others are from writing groups I’ve been a part of or writing conferences I’ve attended. One is a high school friend. Another is a college friend who happened upon my blog and contacted me.

Because of these wonderful people, I feel supported in my writing life. I write alone, but I don’t feel isolated, and I know that when I have breakthroughs both big and small, these people will celebrate with me.

I’m really hoping the rocket club can provide at least a little bit of this for Paul. Because there are plenty of things that he and I share, but an interest in rockets is definitely not one of them.

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Meagan and I try to get together regularly to discuss our writing.  We also write a monthly blog:  Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf!

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 2015

Suggested age range: 10 and up

An ALA Notable Children’s Book for Middle Readers

SUMMARY:

For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.

All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?

Celebrated author Kenneth Oppel creates an eerie masterpiece in this compelling story that explores disability and diversity, fears and dreams, and what ultimately makes a family. Includes illustrations from celebrated artist Jon Klassen.

-courtesy of Amazon

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Perfection vs. Imperfection, Identity (are your flaws part of what makes you who you are?)

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Read more of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf here.

So what did we think?  

Eva:  Wow.  Just wow.  This was an INCREDIBLE book that totally blew me away, both as a reader and a writer.  

Meagan:  Me too.  This is the first book I’ve read in awhile that I just LOVED with no reservations.  Partly because it’s well done, and partly because it’s just my kind of book.  Super-imaginative and inexplicably weird.   

Eva:  It’s one of those books that defies categorization.   Is it an eerie fairy tale?  A psychological thriller?  A morality tale?   I suppose it’s best categorized as middle grade (the protagonist is an eleven-year-old boy), but is it really meant for children?  I would definitely recommend this book to teens and adults, as well as to older kids who can handle spooky stuff.          

Meagan:  This book reminded me so strongly of  The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (one of my favorite books and authors).  Ocean is an adult book, but it is also a category defier.  The protagonist is seven years old for most of that story.  Like The Nest, it is scary and has a lot of eerie, other-worldly stuff going on.  This really got me thinking about what makes The Nest MG, which I do agree it is, while Ocean is usually categorized as adult.  MG categorization is something I obsess about because I sometimes worry that my own work is not easy to categorize.

Here’s what I came up with:  While the other world and antagonist in The Nest are strange, they are also relatively simple and straightforward.  Ocean’s other world (and supernatural characters) are never really explained and a lot of complexity is left up to the reader’s imagination.   Also, in The Nest the protagonist’s parents are basically on his side.  They’re kind of unavailable and not as helpful as they should be, but they’re never actually in opposition to the protagonist.  I don’t want to spoil Ocean for anyone who hasn’t read it, but one of the scariest scenes in it involves a parent siding against a child.  That alone probably makes it too heavy to be MG.  It also has a suicide and some other pretty dark aspects, so just to be clear:  The Ocean at the End of the Lane = Not MG!

Eva:  Speaking of spoilers…It’s hard for me to know what to say about The Nest  because I don’t want to give too much away.    I entered into this book knowing next to nothing about it, and I’m glad.  I was immediately drawn in from the first beautifully-written and hauntingly-engaging paragraph:  

The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels.  What else could they be, with their pale gossamer wings and the music that came off them, and the light that haloed them?  Right away there was this feeling they’d been watching and waiting, that they knew me.  They appeared in my dreams the tenth night after the baby was born.  

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Meagan: So much my enjoyment of this book was rooted in solving the mystery and slowly figuring out how the different parts fit together.  So, I agree, it’s a story that’s especially susceptible to spoilers.

Eva:  What impressed me about this story was… pretty much everything, but for now I’ll say that the pacing and building of tension was fantastic.  The book really plays with emotions and expectations.  Things are not always what they seem, and the spookiness builds slowly until we reach a truly horror-filled climax.  I can see this book giving an adult the heebie-jeebies, and I say that as a compliment.     

Meagan:  I was also impressed by many aspects of this book, but if I had to pick just one favorite quality it would be the simplicity.  I know in the past I’ve complimented other books on their complexity, so maybe that’s kind of ironic.  While a complex story can be super impressive in the way that a chef-created meal is impressive (the perfect blend of complimentary flavors, unexpected yet perfect combinations of textures, a great wine pairing etc.), a simple story like this one feels like a perfectly simple little story unit all on its own.  Less like a multi-course meal and more like the very best clementine from the box.  The one that’s easy to peel, and completely seedless, and juicy but not messy, sweet and tart all at once.  Maybe I’m going too far with this comparison, but instead of an impressive composition of many things, The Nest is like a sweet little package that doesn’t need anything added.

Eva:  I like that comparison!  (Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this story “sweet.”)  Oppel concentrates solely on the story he is telling and everything in the novel serves a purpose in the main storyline.  He sets it in the summertime, I think, so that he doesn’t have to bother with Steve’s life at school.  Unlike many middle grade books, this isn’t a weaving together of various school, family, and friend storylines.  Oppel also doesn’t feel the need to “prove” to us that Steve is a real kid by showing scenes of Steve in real kid situations (eating lunch in the cafeteria, getting into squabbles with friends, etc.).  Instead, Oppel focuses solely on this very strange experience that Steve is having.

The Nest is also written simply on a sentence-level, but that just makes it seem all the more deep — like fable with an underlying message.  The story is also so imaginative.  Without giving too much away, Steve begins having conversations with a wasp queen in his dreams, and the lines between what’s real and what’s a dream become blurred:  

“And where I am now,” I said, looking around, “this is the nest, isn’t it?”  

“Right again.”  

“It’s a real place.  But I thought…”  

“What did you think?”  

“That I just dreamt you.”  

“You are dreaming.  But it’s also real.”

I wasn’t sure this made any sense.  “But how can I fit inside?”  

“Your dream self can fit into any space,” she said as if it were the simplest notion in the world.  “Outside the nest you’re big.  Inside you’re small.”  

The idea of a wasp-fairy being able to “fix” a sickly baby brother is so interesting and creepy-cool.  Since I just had a baby, I can’t help but wonder if Oppel himself is a parent.  When I swaddled my baby for bed the other night, I suddenly saw the similarity to a wasp pupa tightly swaddled inside a silken cocoon.  I wondered if perhaps that was where Oppel got the idea for this story.  

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Meagan:  Not only is the line between dream and reality blurred, but there’s also a blurry line between “crazy” and “sane.”  This dovetails perfectly with the book’s theme re: flaws that make us who we are.   Steve has been to see a psychiatrist already because of obsessive tendencies and anxiety, so he is worried that others view him as “crazy.”  Then the wasp queen uses this fear to manipulate him further (if he tells anyone about the wasps and their plans then he won’t be believed, might be considered schizophrenic etc.).  Then, as the climactic scene plays out and Steve attempts to defend himself and his baby brother, as a reader I kept thinking…Steve looks completely crazy to any outside observer of these actions.  He could end up getting himself and his brother killed by playing out some paranoid delusion.  It is intense to say the least.  

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:   Others have compared it to Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and that’s what I would say as well.  Every time Steve talks to the wasp queen he enters an “other” world much like the one Coraline enters.  At first, it seems like a dream-come-true, but slowly the truth (and the horror) emerge.  Meagan, I’m curious to know what you think because I know you’re a huge fan of Neil Gaiman.   

Meagan:   Absolutely, Coraline is a good comparison.  And, as I mentioned above, I was reminded of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (also by Gaiman).  

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • An eerie fairy tale
  • Pacing
  • Building of suspense
  • Deep themes in a simple story
  • Simple yet effective language
  • Keeping the focus on a single storyline

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva: A masterfully-written tale of suspense and horror that also explores deeply spiritual themes — a must-read.  

Meagan:  Maybe I like “horror” (or at least certain kinds) more than I think I do.  I think of myself as disliking scary books and trying to avoid them…but I wholeheartedly loved this one. Though I did avoid reading it at night.

Has Becoming a Parent Made the Muses Flee?

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Has Becoming a Parent Made the Muses Flee?

Having a baby means I’ve started making up songs about everything. At changing time I sing a song to the tune of “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” that goes,, “Let’s go check your diaper, let’s go check your diaper, let’s go check your diiii-aper….. and see if there’s some poop.”

I sing a song when she’s cranky that goes “it’s time for wrap time nap time, nap time in the wrap. It’s wrap time nap time, when you feel like crap.” I also sing about her current favorite page of her current favorite Dr. Suess book, Circus McGirkus. The page depicts a creature called the “drum-tummied Snumm” so I sing to the tune of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” something like this: “drum-tummy-tum, drum-tummy-tum, drum-tum-ta-roo.  You love drum-tummied Snumm, and he loves you.” That song has a lot of ever-changing verses and usually includes me playing the drums (gently) on my baby’s belly.

 

My husband and my favorite song (or at least the one that gets stuck in our heads the most) is the song I made up for “tummy time.” It goes, predictably, “tummy time, tummy time, tummy time for baby. Tummy time! Tummy time! Tummy time. Tummy time! Tummy time!”

My brother and his fiancé visited over the weekend, and I’m pretty sure the tummy time song got stuck in their heads, too, especially because we were singing about everything to the tune of it: “Picture time, picture time, pictures with Uncle Deven. Look so cute! Look so cute! Look so cute. Look so cute! Look so cute!”   You get the idea.

I’m sorry to say that my husband and I proved to be like every other set of annoying new parents in that we found it hard to talk to Deven and Lauren about anything other than baby stuff. Oh sure, we asked them about their wedding plans, and we had a few non-baby-related conversations. But we also insisted on showing them our stroller and describing the baby’s sleep habits. We talked to them ad nauseum about the baby’s bodily functions. (Literally ad nauseum…when we described using the Nose Frida snot-sucker during breakfast, Lauren started gagging.)

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With the Nose Frida you can suck your child’s snot out of their nose using the power of your own mouth.  I’m kind of obsessed with it.

 

I’ve been worried about this. I love my baby, but I don’t want to be one of those people who only talks about her kid. That’s why I’ve given myself a goal: at least once a week I will leave the baby at home with Daddy and have myself some adult time. I’ve been successful at this for the past three weeks. The first two times I went out for drinks with friends, and last week I went to my first real yoga class since giving birth.

I’m also slowly finding time between the feedings and the diaper changes to work on writing. I sent in an application for a Work in Progress grant from SCBWI, and I’ve been revising my current manuscript. But one thing I haven’t done in a long time is write any new fiction. I feel I don’t have the time, energy, or brainpower for that.  But I also wonder if, as time goes on and I have more time and energy, I’m going to continue to use the baby as an excuse for why I’m not writing anything new.

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The drum-tummied Snumm of Dr. Suess’s Circus McGirkus.

 

There’s this fear that creeps in on me sometimes, that I am losing my ability to be creative. When I look back at stories I wrote in my early twenties, I’m somewhat in awe.  Not of the story structure or writing itself, but of the uninhibited creativity of my ideas. How did I come up with that? Was I more creative back then? I know I’m a better writer now, but I worry that my ideas and inspirations are not as free-flowing.  I worry that the realities and responsibilities of being an adult, and now a parent, have sent the creative muses looking for someone else — someone with more time and energy and brainpower.

That’s why these stupid little songs I’ve been singing are, in a way, comforting. Coming up with silly rhymes and funny phrases isn’t the same as composing a poem or writing a fictional scene, but it’s still being creative with words, isn’t it?

And maybe, as the baby starts to nap more regularly and I have a little time to myself, the muses will hear me singing “Tummy Time” and decide to pay me a visit.

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Baby meets her Uncle Deven!