It’s a new year and a new semester, and with it a new edition of Tips From the MFA Pit. For those not familiar, I teach in an MFA program and what you’ll read here is actual sage advice gleaned from all my years of passing on…my sage advice. This it to a student taking a course in finding their process and individual aesthetic, which loosely interpreted, is finding your own voice and writing methods. The first assignment is an opening essay, to which I’d offered this…
In your opening essay, you stated that your “writing used to be as habitual as brushing my teeth.” This is so true of young writers, and they see it as practice that sets them apart from their peers, as something wonderous and inspirational and unique unto themselves. Sometimes this “calling” seems otherworldly to us, as we almost feel compelled to put down our thoughts into words. It’s exhilarating and we do it as often as we could, and it’s from there that we know—we just know—we were destined to be writers and write great things. The trick is, as we get older and are confronted with demands of adult life, is to keep that magic alive, as we are straddling two very different world.
Part of that adult world is sending our work out for review, whether through the people we share it with, the classes we take, or through publication. What starts out primarily as something we do for ourselves morphs into messages we send out to the world, and from there we open ourselves up to scrutiny. This is never easy, as actually it’s quite a feat of bravery, to share this interior space with the world. But part of what makes writing so satisfying in the end is letting the outside into that interior world, and having them revel in it as much as you do is thrilling. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes the words don’t quite translate, sometimes the cerebral pictures we paint appear blurred. Of course, all writing is subjective, and everyone has their own opinions, but when too many of these opinions come out the same way, we’re forced to take another look. After all, we want to make sure our message is getting across, don’t we?
That’s when we have to assure ourselves that it’s always about the work, it’s never about you. It’s hard, because that’s when that magical feeling we felt in your youth hits up against the hard reality of the reading world. Truth is we all need editors, no matter how successful we get, and there’s proof enough of that is some of the rambling texts of major authors with no-edit clauses in their contracts. From this point we may no longer see our writing as fun as it used to be. Suddenly it becomes work, and that’s when our writing process starts to alter.
This is the hardest part. This is when we may be afraid to face that blank page because we become afraid of the reaction our work will get. But to counter this, we have to split our writer self into the parts: the writer/creator, the editor, and the publicist. The writer/creator just writes, just pounds those words out onto the page, verbal vomit, so to speak, the world be damned. The editor takes those words and refines them, adds and detracts, hones and polished. Then the publicist gets it ready for the markets, eyes it not as a literary creation but a product. Later on, this last task is relegated to an agent, and it’s sometimes the cruelest task of all. But if your want to get our voice out in the world, it’s the most necessary. But it also can’t exist without the first two, the two which allow the third to exist.
I’m not kidding around this time. Enough bullshit already. I’m really sick and tired of your hollow promises. Enough with all the noisemakers, funny hats, glow sticks, confetti and fireworks at midnight. I want me some real live Happy New Years and no more playing around. No more insurrections, Omicrons, lockdowns, natural disasters, Zoomers, KN95s, vaccine deniers, or breakthrough infections. I’m so over take-out. I want to hang out at a bar. Go to the movies. I’m really wanting some five-star service and I don’t care if I have to pay for it. Go get the damn shot. Shots. The booster. Just go do your part and let’s do some Normal already.
It’s that time of year, the holidays, and I’m going to take a break. So have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, a stellar New Year, and I’ll see you sometimes in January!
The following is a reboot of a post from a couple of years ago, but I happen to like it and I’ve been so busy grading end-of-semester essays, my brain’s too mushed to think up anything original. So consider it a Christmas gift–from me to you and visa-versa. (You may thank me now.)
With Hanukkah now behind us, another holiday fest starts imminently, but you would think that it already has, as much as gets done in December. As for me, I simply let the ‘daze rumble past like a runaway train, and if something happens to fall out of the caboose for me, so be it. But if you believe the concept driving the season is peace and not what piece is for you, then here’s a few hints to let you know just how far behind you are:
1. The Great Work Stoppage – As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey comes out of the oven, it’s as if everyone forgets they have a job. Suddenly all meetings become holiday parties, and if you’re expecting that report to get finished, you might as well call back next year. In my particular milieu, I nearly have to hit my students over the head with their final essays to get them to even remember my name.
2. Vanishing Editors – If you were hoping to get your manuscript sold before the end of the year–ha ha, good one! From now until after New Year’s, editors, as well as a fair amount of agents, take a breather and make the rounds of Gotham’s holiday celebrations, where I imagine a fair amount of deal making takes place over the babaganoush. If you’re the writer, think of it as a temporary reprieve from submission angst.
3. Everything’s on Sale – Back in the day, you used to have to wait until after Christmas to get a price cut, but thanks to retail giants like Target and Macy’s, the discounts only get deeper the closer you get to the big day. Which is fine, because if you’re like me, the shopping starts the day before, and I’m all about half-off.
4. The Dread Christmas Sweater – Think about it: if it wasn’t the holidays, would you ever wear that sweater in public? Do you actually like rick-rack, glitter, Rudolph’s battery-operated flashing nose, or cable-knitted Thomas Kinkade reproductions on your chest? So much better to wear the DCS’s less offensive cousins, The Christmas Socks. At least we only have to endure them when you cross your legs.
5. “Oh go ahead – it’s the Holidays.” – Which means, go ahead and eat that brandy cheesecake as big as your head. What the hell – you’re on Lipitor anyway, and your blood test isn’t until January. Which also means you can eat half that Hickory Farm’s beef stick, which is my personal holiday no-denial favorite. No fooling, I’m stocking up!
Only thirteen days left. Get crackin’!
Okay, so it’s December first. That means the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is over, and you have to stop the writing, but only long enough to take stock. So, how did it go for you? Did you start that new novel? Did you drag the old one from under your proverbial bed and continue? Did you give up after three days? Three hours? Three minutes? Or did you tough it out, fall into a groove, and breeze the rest of the way through? Or are you banging your head against the wall, still trying to figure it out? Whatever way you approached it, you deserve a BIG pat on the back for at least giving it a go, and if you finished, you deserve a big HUZZAH! Now you can join that elite club of NaNoWriMos who’ve done it. And hopefully, you’re on your way to join those who’ve gone onto selling.
Inevitably, you’ll ask the question, so now what? Well, if you enjoyed National Novel Writing Month, you can continue the good feels after the holidays by signing onto NaNoWriMo’s help taking that finished novel to the next level. Need help with editing and revision and where to go next? Then go here for the NaNoWriMo site and let them help your continue your publishing journey. Happy Writing!
My gift to you this Thanksgiving! My gift to myself is carpal tunnel in my right hand, so I won’t be doing too much writing these next couple of days, all my energy spent in hoisting leftover turkey leftover and its accompaniments. I’ll also be upending the whipped cream over my mouth for a covert squirt after burying a slice of pumpkin pie under it. So yeah, I’ll be kinda busy after all. Happy Thanksgiving!
You thought I forgot, didn’t you? Like nearly a whole semester has gone by with nary a mention. Well no I didn’t! What follows is a discussion on loving the author, but maybe not loving the work. The bone of our contention was Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No one’s perfect after all, not even literary icons!
There are several things that struck me when reading your critique of Garcia Marquez. The first thing is you can love the author, but you don’t have to love everything they write. To use a cliché, you don’t have to hit a home run every time—on both ends. There are reasons for this, one of which is the perks of being a literary icon. This being one of GM’s later works, after several critical and commercial successes, after winning the Nobel Prize, his publisher more than likely gave him a no-edit clause. Quite literally, they will publish every word the author writes. The author becomes their own editor in the sense that they have the final say over what stays or goes in the work, as their work is considered beyond “fixing,” and that people will buy anything he’ll write anyway. Only big authors get this privilege, and I’ve seen some of my favorite writers go this route to the point I couldn’t read them anymore. Take one Ken Follett.
Back in his prime, he was one of my favorite writers. Not for his deep literary talent, but for pure escapism. His genre was historical thrillers, and he wrote several novels set during WWII, two of which The Eye of the Needle and Night Over Water, kept you on the edge of your seat with every turn of the page. They were novels you’d read far into the night, mainly because you simply could not put them down. Then his success led to a no-edit clause. The first book I read after that I couldn’t get 50 pages in. It’s been years, but I haven’t read anything by him since.
What struck me next doesn’t have so much to do with Garcia Marquez as with how much you’re learning about magical realism. You’re discovering what works and what doesn’t, or rather what works for YOU and what doesn’t. As you read, you’re also developing your own style, as what you would write if it were your own book. I read with interest your synopsis of the work, as it boiled it down to the elements that stood out to you. From what I could gather, it lacked the enthusiasm of when you really enjoy something (as with Beloved — and oh yes, did you enjoy the firestorm the book caused in the recent gubernatorial election in Virginia? Guaranteed 99.99% of the complainers didn’t read past the first page). Another thing that struck me was the blatant symbolism in it. Calling the protagonist Sierva, at least an Anglo play on the Spanish for servant servidora. Then there’s her hair being a symbol of freedom, and how hers is shorn. It reminded me of the fairy tail, Rapunzal, whose long hair kept her captive in a tower. Irony, maybe?
Again, we don’t have to love everything from a beloved writer. We can allow them a few misses in their entire body of work. But as I pointed out you can still learn from them, and if that’s not what to do, if we can hone our own style out of theirs, then a lesson learned is a lesson learned.
It’s that time of year again! National Novel Writing Month aka NaNoWriMo! Start a novel, grab an old one from under your proverbial bed and revise, or get back to work on one you started a while ago which is now moldering in your cloud or hard drive. C’mon, we all have one lingering about, don’t we? When would be a better time to get back to work on it than during November, when you’ll have all the creative and emotional support you can get from the NaNoWriMo community? Writers write peeps, so you don’t get to call yourself more if you don’t do it. So click here for more information, and then it’s butt in chair and get that genius going!