Long Time No See / MFA Programs

Hey there everyone! I know it’s been a while since I posted last, and I apologize for that. (Actually as I look back, it’s less time than I thought. But it’s still more time than is really permissible.) I still owe a good friend a review for her book that I read, and I intend to deliver. Things are still going a little rough for me; I haven’t found a new job yet, I’m still doing battle with depression (though the new meds are working better than any of the others), and it’s hard to find a pattern or routine when there’s–quite literally–nothing forcing you to do anything. But I’m still going to try.

However, I’m back today to bring some attention to an article I just read, and talk about what it made me think. Before jumping under the cut, go take a look at Kameron Hurley’s article “I Don’t Care About Your MFA.” Then let’s chat.

I’m glad I went back through and re-read this article before I started writing about it, because when I glanced through it the first time, it was very easy to get “righteously indignant.” (Many friends–and former friends–will tell you I do this all too regularly, usually followed by someone who ACTUALLY knows better coming around and smacking some sense into me and me curling into a corner to lick my wounds until I remember that I totally deserved them.) It was too easy to march around and wave my almost-degree in this author’s face and say “YOU’RE WRONG, MY MFA IS THE BEST, YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT IT, HOW DARE YOU SAY SUCH AWFUL THINGS WHILE I FILL THIS SENTENCE WITH COMMA SPLICES” and be triumphant in the fact that I knew I was right and she was wrong.

And then I went back and read it again…and realized that I agreed with the vast majority of what she was saying.

I struggled with many of the same things. I spent much of my youth being convinced that I was just so misunderstood and no one in my oh-so-immature age group could possibly comprehend the words I was writing and more dreck like that. I was one of the “smart kids” and had been for most of my junior high/high school life. It wasn’t something I tried for or particularly took pleasure in; it just was. I wasn’t in the top ten in my class because I chose not to take the advances classes that could have weighted my GPA higher like my friends the valedictorian and salutatorian did; I took classes I knew I would enjoy, like drawing and photography instead of subjecting myself to calculus and AP history. (I did take AP English though. This should not come as a surprise.)

My teachers routinely lauded my writing, from high school into college. I was the only student in the history of the AP English exam at my high school (and I think, from recent conversations with my teacher from back then, still am) to receive a 5 (highest score) on the exam. The exam I didn’t study for. I came into my Writing 100 class in college, wrote an essay which looking back probably looked schizophrenic as I discussed my writing process through the lens of one of my characters talking to me and commenting on my process. (I’m a weird kid.)  My teacher thought it was brilliant.

Despite the fact that my creative writing professor had decided that I’d spelled the name of one of my characters wrong (I’m sorry, if I want to call him Fiyero Capallini, then I bloody well can, and I don’t care how the Pontiac Fiero spells its name. Also, sorry to Gregory Maguire for swiping that awesome name. I promise I’ll change it if I ever publish that story. But did you know that Fiyero’s name is spelled wrong?) Everyone told me I was brilliant with dialogue. One of my teachers said that my thesis defense on character development was the most interesting and thought-provoking events he’d been to all year. (I thank Dr. Little for that each and every day, because that was a boost I desperately needed at that point in time–and still do.)

So I knew my next step was clearly to get an MFA in Creative Writing. That’s what you did. I wanted to be the best writer I could possibly be, and since my college had not (in my ever so humble opinion) not done that enough for me. I had to turn to the specialists.

But that’s the same place I learned what Hurley was talking about. My writing was good enough, sure. But my storytelling was lacking.

I’d had an inkling of this a few years prior, when I’d sent my first completed novel draft off to a professional script reader in Burbank. (Who also happens to be my uncle. But he was very professional about the whole matter.) He sent me back 4 pages worth of notes, and the two main problems were: 1) my main character had almost no friends. She had a best friend, her love interest, and nothing else. And 2) there was very little conflict. Every problem that came up was solved quickly and was never allowed to build.

My grad school teachers told me much the same thing. My short little practice drabs were wonderfully written! …But any of my longer projects were suffering at the hand of storytelling. At first, I was horrified by this. I was a born storyteller! I’d gotten my fabulous storytelling ability from my father, and like some royal crown, I would pass it down to the masses!

The trouble was, while I could tell a good story, I couldn’t really write one. I’d spent so much time in character development that the story got lost–and I didn’t manage to convey half of the character development I’d come up with in the first place.

I quickly switched projects, starting my second semester with a story I knew had potential and I knew really needed to be better than it was. This wasn’t the kind of story I usually told, so I wanted to work on that one. And I went back into our lectures and workshops, and I started listening.

My program at Carlow University, I’ve found, is somewhat non-standard. I’ve heard other MFA programs are much more cutthroat, much more competitive, significantly less fun to be in. And maybe those are the kinds of MFA programs that Hurley was talking about. One of my favorite lectures from my entire time at Carlow (and this is a story I tell every chance I get) was the first time I had the pleasure of listening to author Alex Mindt speak. He had us all read the short story “Brownies” by ZZ Packer. Didn’t tell us why, just had us read it. And when he came in, he talked about the story. He talked about what the words were saying, not the way the sentences were constructed. He made us look past the writing, and into the meaning. At the end, he gave me–all of us–the best inspiration I’ve ever had. You see it on my website, you hear me say it, I’ve made it my mantra. “There are two words, the two most important words you can ask any author, because they’re the beginning of every story. ‘What happened?'”

What happened?

That’s it. That’s the question. That’s what we’re faced with, and that’s how you tell a story, not how you write one. English classes teach you how to write the story. My MFA has taught me how to tell it.

I was so caught up in Hurley saying that how to tell better stories is “not something I’m going to learn from a book, or an MFA, or a single workshop” and being angry about it because I did… and missed the quote from a paragraph or two up: “What I needed was something most workshops and MFA programs weren’t going to give me.” (Emphasis mine.)

Most. She’s not painting every MFA or every workshop with the same blood-red brush. She’s saying most won’t give her that. Most won’t give her that.

The title of Hurley’s article is good writing. It makes you think one thing, get into one mindset, be all ready to defend blindly and at any cost. The article itself is good storytelling. Something you have to think about, something that conveys a deeper meaning, something leaves us wondering at the end.

Maybe I need to be a better reader, as well as a writer and storyteller.

It’s true; the world conflates writing with storytelling, and that’s absolutely something we need to look at and work out/through. It’s evident in the rise of self-published novels, in the exponential growth of what’s out there and who can put it there. There are a lot of brilliantly talented writers…who haven’t cultivated their ability to tell story. And that’s a shame.

So I’m okay that she doesn’t care about my MFA. I don’t care that she doesn’t have one. I don’t think she needs to. And I like to think that maybe, if I had a chance to talk with her, she might think that it’s good that I have one. We each walk this path, the path of authoring if you will, differently. But I think we’ve come to the same place, and that’s really what matters.

That’s…what happened.


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