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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.

Day 3: The Best Pieces of Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received

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Day 3:  The Best Pieces of Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received

MY JULY GOALS FOR LIFE FULFILLMENT:   

1.  Mediate every day for at least 10 minutes 

2. Read blogs and learn how to promote my own

3. When I’m about to say something negative, say something positive instead.

*Check out my book review of The Silver Star on Burlesque Press!*

When you ask people for writing advice, you often get fuzzy, feel-good stuff like, “write the story that’s in your heart,” or generic tough-love stuff like “sit your ass in the chair.”  That’s fine and all, but you might sit your ass in a chair and write the story in your heart, and it might still suck. So here’s some more specific advice you can actually use, most of which I learned during my days as a University of New Orleans MFA student.

#1 Something has to happen
It sounds simple, but you’d be amazed at how many stories I work-shopped in my MFA classes about some tough, introspective dude who sits at a bar, drinks whiskey, and thinks about stuff. Boring! You are the god of your own characters. Create conflict for them, and then, slowly, help them figure out how to resolve it.

#2 One way to deal with flashbacks
In lots of stories and novels the narrator jumps back to an earlier time for a few sentences or a whole scene. If you don’t do this right, it’s easy for your reader to get confused. One simple way to avoid flashback confusion is to write your story in the present tense. Whenever you want to talk about something that happened in the past, use the simple past. Easy.

#3 Another way to handle flashbacks: The 3 In – 3 Out Rule
If you write your story in the past tense, you have to use the past-perfect for flashbacks. The past perfect is the tense used to talk about something that happened before something else that happened in the past. I call it “the had tense.” For example, the past perfect is bolded below:

He walked into the bar and saw her standing near the pool table. The last time he’d seen her, she had stabbed a fork into his leg.

But the past-perfect gets old awfully fast with all those “hads.” The solution is to start off your flashback with the first three verbs in past-perfect. This makes your reader aware of what’s going on. Then switch to simple past, which is much more pleasant to read. At the end of your flashback, make the last three verbs past-perfect to get your reader “out” of the flashback.

#4 Lift your title from the story itself
Stuck on a name for your story or novel? Instead of choosing something too obvious or too generic, like “The Black Cat,” read through the story and look for a phrase that works for the whole piece. A professor of mine, the wonderful Canadian author Joseph Boyden, was the one who told me this, and one of his students, Barb Johnson, mastered the technique in her story collection, More of This World or Maybe Another. Miranda July, author of the collection Nobody Belongs Here More Than You, also does this with her titles.

Drawing by me, Eva Langston!

Drawing by me, Eva Langston!

#5 Mix summary with scene
In most short stories and novels, you are going to have scenes with dialogue and action, and then you are going to have sections of summary where the narrator “tells” the reader what happened. The key is to blend the two seamlessly and try not to have too much of one or the other. Too much summarization can fall into the dreaded “telling instead of showing” realm, while too many scenes (or scenes that go on for too long without a break) can be fatiguing for the reader. One strategy is to decide on the important, pivotal scenes and write those first. Then fill the spaces in between with summary.

#6 Make your story a little bit “messy”
At the beginning of my MFA program, my beautiful and brilliant professor, writer Amanda Boyden, often accused me  of wrapping everything up too neatly, solving all the characters’ problems, being too obvious with my symbols. Real life is messy, she said, and fiction should reflect that. Sometimes issues are unresolved, words are unsaid, and people are unreliable. Resist the urge to make all the pieces fit perfectly into place. Resist the urge to explain everything. Let your reader do some of the sorting out themselves.

#7 End with an image
As much as you might want to end your story like an Aesop’s fable, with a neat little moral summary or a pointed sentence explaining what the story “means,” you have to let your reader determine that on their own. One good way to end is with the description of an image that you want to linger in the reader’s mind. Take, for example, the last paragraph of “The Monkey Paw” by W.W. Jacobs and notice the image he leaves us with in the last sentence:

The knocking ceased suddenly, although the echoes of it were still in the house. He heard the chair drawn back and the door opened. A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long, loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side, and then to the gate beyond. The streetlamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.

RELATED READING:

What’s Their Story?  (An article about writing couple extraordinaire, Joseph and Amanda Boyden)

How to Write a Short Story

The Best Writing Advice You’ll Ever Get from Huffington Post

Ten Ginormous Signs It’s Time to Tell Your Story:  A Diagnostic Tool by Jen Violi on Burlesque Press

Happy writing, and come back again soon! I plan on posting about the best grammar advice and the best advice for writing dialogue I’ve ever received.  (I have a lot of tips — people give me a lot of advice!)  

My birthday is today. Here is a picture of me with a birthday pinata I bought for myself at a market in Mexico a few years ago.

My birthday is today. Here is a picture of me with a birthday pinata I bought for myself at a market in Mexico a few years ago.

Days 79 & 80: I Do Like Cats – That Much Is True

Days 79 & 80: I Do Like Cats – That Much Is True

TODAY’S STATS:

# of pages revised: 28

# of literary mags submitted to: 5

# of days left to complete 2nd draft: 66

Writer Amy Hempel is a master of saying only what’s necessary. Her short stories are often less than five pages. They are like wisps of clouds that resemble familiar shapes as they quickly drift by. But they leave an impression in your mind.

The first time I heard her speak, she read” The Harvest,” a story about a woman who is severely injured in a car accident. Then she told us what parts of the story were true.

“I really was in an accident,” she said. “And everything about the hospital is true, except my leg only required three hundred stitches. I suppose I exaggerated for emphasis.”

I nodded. I do that all the time.

“And there was no other car. There was only the one car, the one that hit me when I was on the back of a man’s motorcycle. But think of the awkward syllables when you have to say motorcycle.”

*   *  *
This reminds me of Motorcycle Boy, the first book published by Joseph Boyden, a Canadian writer, and one of my favorite professors when I was getting my MFA from the University of New Orleans.

Joseph has won many awards and much acclaim for his most recent novels, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, but I remember people chuckling about his first novel. “It’s about a twenty-something guy who rides his motorcycle across Canada,” someone, possibly his wife, the brilliant and beautiful novelist, Amanda Boyden, said with a smile. I stood among a group of other writers at a big, drunken MFA gathering, and we all laughed because, obviously, Motorcycle Boy was autobiographical.

And in our circle, that was looked down upon.

*   *  *
Yesterday I finally tackled an “assignment” my friend Allyson suggested a while back: writing a 1,500 word young-adult story for Children’s Writer magazine. It was tough. 1,500 words is short – less than five pages. I was going to have to channel Amy Hempel. But I figured it would be good practice since I’ve been talking about editing myself and not saying too much. Plus, my novel is for young adults, so I need to really throw myself into the young-adult fiction scene.

As I sometimes do when thinking of what to write, I mined my own experiences. The contest guidelines said to write a story for 13 to 14-year-olds, so I thought about being that age, and a memory came to me. It wasn’t much of a memory. Only that for my eighth grade graduation my mother gave me three little cat figurines. They had creepy blue eyes and were covered in real cat hair.

I remember being confused about why she would give me these cats. Did she think I would like them? I did like cats, but for a present I would have preferred a gift certificate to the mall. I had a sudden realization that I was no longer a child, but not yet an adult, and my mother didn’t quite know who I was anymore.

So I started a story with “My mom gave me a cat figurine for my eighth grade graduation.” I didn’t know what was going to happen from there, but at least I had my first line.

Of course, the story needed a plot, so I made the cat figurine, covered in real cat hair, a cat genie that could grant wishes. (Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in real life.) And because I wanted to make the main character go back to school the next day, bringing the cat genie with her, I changed eighth grade graduation to a sports banquet where she receives a certificate of participation. But I did use my real eighth grade crush in the story: a blond boy named Travis, although he sat next to me in Science, not Spanish.

A recent picture of me and my mom’s cat, Zooey. I do love cats, it’s true.

In an interview with the Paris Review, Amy Hempel says that she doesn’t feel she has “a particularly large imagination,” but she is a great observer. She often writes about her own life and says she gets an idea “from looking around, not from thinking it up.”

I loved when she told us all the true bits from “The Harvest.” So often, it seems, fiction writers won’t admit to this. “I made it all up!” they’ll say, as if to prove their superior creativity. They might even get offended if you insinuate a story is partially auto-biographical — I know I do! When I was getting my MFA, I often felt I wasn’t creative enough, because I had to keep using my own experiences for ideas.

I still struggle with this notion of creativity, and I worry I don’t have enough of it.

But Amy Hempel says the two things she asks of a story are “interesting language and genuine feeling.” And I suppose you can do that whether the story is truth, fiction, or a combination of the two.

P.S.  Here are some other EDITING CHALLENGES I might try:

-write a story of 100 words, no more no less, for Marco Polo Arts Mag

-write a story in exactly 6 words for Narrative Magazine

Day 9: Are You Creative and/or Morose? If So, I Need Your Help!

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Day 9:  Are You Creative and/or Morose?  If So, I Need Your Help!

TODAY’S STATS

# of pages written: 5.5 (so far)

# of times I’ve checked email/facebook: 3

# of days left to write 1st draft: 152

Thus far I have only posted non-fiction on this blog, perhaps making everyone (including myself) wonder if indeed I am a fiction writer. Well, here is some fiction, although I am posting it not as proof, but because I am in need of help.

I’m very good at starting stories. In fact, my brilliant and beautiful mentor, Amanda Boyden, author of Pretty Little Dirty and Babylon Rolling, once told me, “Eva, your beginnings are awesome. But your endings need work.” It’s true. Often, my endings are nonexistent.

The other day I went to the beach and sat there for a long time, staring at the ocean and sifting sand through my fingers. Then I wrote home and wrote part of a macabre story. As usual, I really like the way it begins, but I can’t figure out what should actually happen. You know, that thing called plot. I’ve tried several different options, but nothing seems to work, and I don’t know how it will end, except most likely someone will die.

So, here’s a fun assignment for you! Read this, and tell me what YOU think should happen! If I like you’re idea, I will use it and credit you as a co-author. I’m also hoping to get the very talented friend who did the illustration for today and Day 6 to illustrate this story. Added fun! So, without further ado, I give you….Untitled:

Illustration by a talented friend.

Bianca sat on the beach, sucking on a piece of rock-hard taffy and squinting into the orange sun as it sank into the sea. Her mother had gone off again with the lobster man, and there was no telling when she might be back, or if she would be back at all.

The wind kicked up, blowing sand onto Bianca’s lemon-flavored taffy. The girl stuffed it into her mouth and heard the unpleasant crunching inside her molars as she chewed. The sunlight formed a shining gold highway on the ocean, and the clouds along the horizon had turned pink, like the secret insides of a conch shell. Behind her the sea grasses rustled on the dunes, and above her head seagulls screamed as they fought against the wind.

Just then, Bianca noticed a small head bobbing in the blue water. Wondering if it was a baby drowning, she stood and brushed the sand from her black dress, her jaw still working the taffy. She couldn’t swim, and she was alone on the beach, so if a baby was drowning, there wasn’t much she could do. She watched the object float above the water. A baby head would have sunk by now, she thought. A moment later a curling wave tossed the head towards shore, and it washed up with the foam onto the sand.

Bianca ran down the beach to retrieve the head before it was snatched back by the sea. She picked it up, drying it on the front of her dress and brushing away the sand. It was the head of a doll, and quite a nice doll, too, despite being waterlogged and faded from the sun. It had large, green glass eyes with lids that opened and closed, and a fringe of real-looking eyelashes, although the lower lashes were painted on. The doll’s face was bleached white as a bone, and its swirl of plastic hair may have once been brown but was now a pale, grayish color, like that of dirty dishwater. It had a tiny, slip of a nose, and its pinched-up lips were the perfect cupid’s bow, faded from red to pink by the sun.

Bianca looked around furtively for girl fishers. These were old men in leaky, wooden boats who cast out lines with dolls or hair bows attached to ends, hoping to hook a little girl and lure her out to sea. But the ocean was empty, and so Bianca took her find and plodded back up the beach.

There was really no telling the sex of the doll, but Bianca decided she was a girl and christianed her Catamarina Marie. “You will have two nicknames,” Bianca said, shaking the head to drain some of the water trapped inside it. “You’ll be called Cat by your family – mainly me since I’m your mother – and you’ll be called Mari by your friends, if you ever have any.”

Cradling the doll in the crook of her elbow, Bianca sat down in the dry sand to examine her daughter more closely. She and Catamarina looked very much the same, she thought. Both pale as paper with large green eyes and small, pink lips. Bianca’s hair, cropped short for easy care, was the same nondescript color as the doll’s: somewhere between brown and yellow.

“I’m not sure what to do with you, Baby Cat,” Bianca said, stroking the doll’s smooth cheek. “I can’t feed you. You have no tummy. I can’t change you. You have no bummy.” Bianca giggled and wished someone was around to hear her rhyme. She always seemed to be at her most witty and charming when she was alone. Around her mother and her mother’s friends, she often pouted and cried and was a general nuisance.

Suddenly, Catamarina’s eyelids blinked and her tiny, painted mouth began to open. From it came a sputtering cough and a spray of seawater. Then she began to speak in a high and lovely voice…