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Writer, Editor, Designer

Posts tagged grad school

As I wrap up my MFA (which means a new subtitle to this blog is in order!) there have been a lot of lasts lately, like my last workshop which is this Thursday, my last day of teaching, my last Read Free or Die, the last time I’ll see people from my cohort who are going off to wherever their careers are taking them. (I have it on good authority that the place everyone goes to during the first several post-MFA months is Deep Depression, and from there, on to their careers.)

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Making words with my lips and teeth and tongue at Read Free or Die.

But there’s also some firsts which is ending my MFA years on a rather high note. As you may have seen, I was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and I just found out on Tuesday that my story “Must Believe in Ghost” has been accepted for publication in The Normal Schoolwhich is a magical magazine and if you’re not reading it, you should. I met them at AWP last spring and was immediately impressed, got a subscription, and began avidly reading their fantastic work (which is beautifully designed, by the way.)

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“Must Believe in Ghost” primarily concerns the content of this photograph.


I MUST BE IN THIS!
, I said, and sent them the one story I had that I thought would really fit their aesthetic. DING! DING! DING! (See, kids, it pays to read a journal to understand its editorial inclinations and target your submissions, rather than carpet-bombing your story to everyone.)

I’ll update later when it’s out and available, or you can order a subscription now! It’s only like $12 a year. CHUMP CHANGE! Flaunt your affluence! Make it rain! Then, when April or May rolls around and I’m all getting in your grill to go buy my issue, you can be all, hey man, I’ve already been grooving on these sweet, sweet narratives!

 

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My empty office, which will be torn down this summer.

Reading my short story,

Reading my short story, “Those Peculiar Galaxies” for UNH’s Graduate Research Conference

My second year of my MFA is over (in case you weren’t able to pick that up from context clues in the title of this post.) There’s one more semester left, another writing workshop, a form & technique class focusing on putting together a story collection through the lens of recent successful collections, like Kyle Minor’s Praying Drunk and Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn, among others, as well as teaching another section of freshman composition.

This summer will be spent, between feminist science fiction conventions (Wiscon!) and Quaker-Marxist weddings, putting together my thesis, that collection of short stories that’s supposed to prove I learned something here, or that, at the least, I was productive at putting words on a page. It’s actually pretty close to done already—125 pages of the required 150, so my main goal is to get everything in order and write another two stories.

One, I already know and have started. The other, I know what story I want to write. The question is, can I figure it out, make it compelling, and not feel contrived—it needs to do a lot of things, first and foremost, fulfill all that was promised by the opening story and echo and illuminate everything that was built in the subsequent stories. Tall order for a story of whose shape I only have the fuzziest shadow.

Dorm life is caput.

Dorm life is caput.

And so I look forward to a new semester in the fall in a new office, teaching a new batch of freaked-out freshmen, in a new apartment somewhere around seacoast New Hampshire with a whole new host of weird issues to contend with. It’s almost as if two years isn’t really long enough for an MFA, but simultaneously, I can’t wait to be done. Some chapters are short, some are not?

Ultimately, it’s that odd combination of end-of-a-good-book sad and end-of-a-good-book excitement, and I’m trying to savor the end of said good book, but I’m already starting to think about what book to read next.

This blog languished this semester while I taught fiction and forged through another workshop and a composition pedagogy class. But here is what I learned:

Anger and spite are a great way to decimate writer’s block.

Composition pedagogy has its gaze a little too far up its own navel.

Teaching fiction in a workshop is as fantastic, frustrating, and fun as being in a fiction workshop.

I learned that Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” is a great story to teach backstory and epiphany. That Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” is great for stressing how important character is, even to a genre piece. That half your class with hate Lorrie Moore’s “You’re Ugly Too” but the other half of the class will love it and you won’t have to teach, because the love-half of the class will explain to the hate-half all the things that the hate-half didn’t understand and why it’s such a brilliant story. That kids these days don’t care much for Hemingway and Carver-esque icebergian minimalism. That Sherman Alexie stories will bring out unexamined privilege. That everyone loves Flannery O’Connor. That it’s really easy to accidentally fill your syllabus with stories featuring gun violence. That your students will surprise you with their creativity, shock you alternately with their originality and banality. That they are addicted to melodrama. That a lot of them want to write stories about people with superpowers. That sometimes the harshest, truest, most unflinching stories come from the most unexpected writers. That we’re all storytellers, that we groove on plot, that we’re all armchair psychologists. That a lot of them don’t like to read out loud. I learned that a class-wide round of exquisite corpse is a great tension breaker to end the semester.

I go back to teaching First Year Writing next semester and I’m going to miss running a fiction workshop. I’m going to miss my students and their stories and their ability to surprise me.

A story was rejected yesterday. I’ve had three or four rejections in the last few weeks. I haven’t been submitting long, and I know this is par for the course, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

A bunch of my cohort had dinner with the well-known writer who came for the writer’s series of readings. He gave us a lot of advice about starting out and advised that we shouldn’t even worry about submitting right now, that we’re not ready, that we should be first and foremost honing our craft. He even suggested that we take some time after we finish our MFA before we really get serious, to let those lessons settle in and find your center as a writer. I don’t think that advice is for me. And after one semester, there’s a tiny part of me that’s worrying that this MFA isn’t going to teach me much I don’t already know.

At the end of last spring, I was riding pretty high. I had been accepted into half of the MFA programs I applied to, my senior thesis, a short story collection, won two $1000 awards—the department’s fiction thesis prize and an excellence award. I finished off the semester with two of the strongest stories I’d ever written and things looked good.

But now, it’s almost the end of my first semester of grad school, I’ve had nothing but rejections (though one story was a semi-finalist in a contest) and the last story I wrote is probably the weakest story I’ve ever written, and I’m fearing that I won’t get much out of the MFA. I’m feeling pretty low at the moment and could really use a win. You listening, Universe?

On the other hand, I know that the quality of work tends to dip at the start of an MFA because of the soul-shifting that results from a new place, new people, new methods, new influences, and new pressures. I know that eight bazillion publishers rejected J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss and everyone who’s crazy famous now. I know all these things, but those things are no bandage on the little wound of they-don’t-like-me-I-suck festering on my heart.

As a fiction writer, you’d think I’d be good at lying. My whole job is literally just making things up. But no, I can’t lie. Or rather, I can, but it is physically uncomfortable. It’s less uncomfortable to say uncomfortable truths. Which can make it seem like I lack tact, diplomacy, social graces, or that I overshare, or am just a plain jackass.

This character trait is particularly problematic in writing workshops and the solution of which is probably the greatest skill I’ve learned in workshop. Basically, I have had to learn how to spin “This sucks” into something constructive. Instead of “Holy shit, look at this ugly fucking hole in the ground,” I’ve learned to say “A big beautiful skyscraper would look fantastic right here.”

And I’m realizing it’s a fantastic skill to have. It’s incredibly easy to be a negative person, to see failure and deficiency everywhere, to see only the shits and the sucks and the ohmygodfuckthis’s. Instead, if in every failure, you train your brain to see potential, you can sound like a motivational speaker.

Jesus, that’s what I just did. I just independently invented motivational speakers.

Fuck positivity. Good art uses negative space. Feel free to suck as much as you want and when you want my opinion, I’ll tell you exactly how much it sucks.

But I’ll also tell you how much it’s awesome, so deal with it.

There are times when one has to read a novel and for whatever reason, you’re just not into it, you’re not in the mood to read it, et cetera, you can’t seem to read, your mind wanders and the reading isn’t getting done. But you’re on a deadline. You need to be able to discuss this novel for your graduate seminar tomorrow!

What do you do?

I’ve discovered that if you download the audio version, listen to it at 2x speed while following along in the book, you can burn through, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned in about six hours.

The speed is a little slower than average reading pace, but having a narrator whose mind doesn’t wander and procrastinate, it more than makes up for the slightly slower pace. This also works spectacularly for Shakespeare. Can’t get into it? Listen to a performance and follow along.

I wish I’d discovered this much much earlier in my educational career.