I earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College in 2005. It was three years of non-stop workshops in screenplay, novel, and short fiction as well as literature classes, teaching pedagogy, and a smattering of other stuff. I don’t talk about it much, really. I’ve been taught, through gradual experience, that nobody really wants to hear about it.
When you get an MFA, you find yourself situated with a foot in two very different, very adversarial worlds. On the one hand, you are a “writer” among many other people who are also writers and many of whom chose not to spend the money and time to get an MFA. I’ve found, generally to my surprise, that when I mention that I have an MFA among writers, the response (more often than not) is prickly defensiveness. They, more often than not, look at me like this:
Now, maybe this reaction is because of all the MFA-holders who are douchebags (more on that later), but generally I think the fact that I have an MFA and they do not makes them doubt themselves somehow and they resent me for being the impetus for their self-doubt. When you’re trying to become a writer, there is an almost constant worry that you’re doing it wrong, somehow. You worry if you’re ever going to make it and if your plan is just so much pie-in-the-sky dreaming and then along comes me, with my fancy-shmancy MFA, and oh I must think I’m so special…etc., etc.
Then, on the other side of your post-MFA life, you’ve got the Academic world. An MFA is a terminal degree, technically equivalent to a PhD in other fields, and entitles you (should you so choose) to dive into the world of higher education. The thing is, though, that nobody in the academic world really thinks your MFA is equivalent to a PhD because, let’s be honest here, you just made shit up for your dissertation and you basically earned a degree for talented lying and now you’re think, for some reason, you’re entitled to have opinions about things happening at an actual college with real academics. I’m one of the only professors my students have who does not have the honorific “Doctor” in front of my name. I keep picturing Sheldon Cooper sneering at me over my shoulder at faculty meetings sometimes. I think, probably, in this instance it is me having a degree of self-doubt about my worthiness to be in higher ed – probably very few of my colleagues actually look down on me – but the feeling of Impostor Syndrome is often very strong.
So, I don’t bring up my MFA if I can help it. I let my work and ideas speak for themselves, since the degree itself seems more of a divisive thing than otherwise. All that said, I think my MFA was a valuable experience for me and its capacity to get me into teaching higher ed has been an invaluable benefit for my life and career. I did learn to be a better writer in my program. Do you need an MFA to become a better writer? Of course not! You can take the same number of workshops and classes in your free time from any number of programs and probably for less money. My MFA didn’t make me any more publishable and didn’t give me an inside-scoop on the publishing world by any means – I came out of my program a better writer, but just as unprepared for the publishing end of writing as anybody else. And, furthermore, everybody’s MFA experience likely varies a wide bit just based upon course selection, the school you attend, and even the individuals who happen to be in workshop with you. As with so much else in life, Your Mileage May Vary.
Which brings me to this op-ed piece in The Stranger by Ryan Boudinot which discusses the things he, as an ex-MFA teacher, believes about writers and MFA programs. This article has caused a bit of a stir in the writing community, with people reacting very poorly to Boudinot’s tone and argument. In particular, Chuck Wendig tears the guy a new one on his blog. I, personally, did not react quite so negatively. I mean, I don’t fully agree with a bunch of things he says, but the spirit of much of what he says I feel is accurate and, furthermore, very much reflective of what goes on inside MFA programs. Now, is he being an arrogant, elitist jerk about this stuff? Well, yeah. But, then again, maybe it doesn’t bother me that much because, having been through an MFA program, I got kinda used to listening to arrogant elitist jerks (both teachers and fellow students) spout off and I got good at finding the kernel of truth behind all the BS. I mean, you have to understand that, as a science fiction writer in a MFA program, I was basically considered to be some kind of dumb, half-wit cousin to “actual writers.” I was very commonly in an atmosphere of disdain and dismissal when I discussed what work inspired me and what I liked to read. A number of workshops forbade anything they termed “genre literature,” and when I offered up a page of William Gibson’s Neuromancer as good writing, a bunch of people refused to read it on the grounds that “they didn’t read that kind of thing.”
It was all crap, I know, but I learned how to sift useful information out of that crap. That, in and of itself, was an education worth the price of admission, since so much of writing is listening to nonsense about your writing with tiny kernels of useful truth. You gotta learn how to find it.
Accordingly, here are the kernels of truth that ought to be taken out of Boudinot’s piece, and what I instinctively took his points to mean:
Assertion #1: “Writers are Born With Talent”
Yeah, I agree that writers aren’t some kind of elite genetic sub-class. That said, people clearly have varying levels of talent for doing it, and the most talented people who work the hardest have the best chance of succeeding. I can see how Boudinot, after years of wading through reams of indifferent prose, might grow embittered towards those students who weren’t very good at writing. That said, I feel as though this assertion is a non-entity, a non-statement. Yeah, we all have certain talents. We can hone what talent we have and get better, yeah, but some of us will never be prima ballerinas, try as we might. I mean, right? Is someone going to kick down my door and tell me I could be greatest kung fu master who ever lived if only I wanted it enough? I kinda doubt it. Desire is arguably more important, yeah, but to say talent is irrelevant seems odd to me.
Assertion #2: “You Need To Take Writing Seriously as a Kid to Make It”
Okay, so first off this is provably false, yes. Of course you can still make it, and at any age. The kernel of truth in this assertion, though, is this statement:
Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language.
This happens in about a million different ways, and everybody I know who is a writer has this love of language (whether consciously or otherwise) that they have developed throughout their lives. This doesn’t really mean “taking writing seriously as a teenager,” but it does mean having that connection with language since a young age. If you never read a book in your life and hated writing things, the odds that at 40 you can somehow make it as a novelist seem low. Not impossible, mind you, but low. Furthermore, for Boudinot, many of his students weren’t teenagers all that long ago. If you’re 22 and in a MFA program and you hadn’t already developed some kind of serious interest in language, you are probably wasting your time and everybody else’s in that program (and one wonders how you got in).
Assertion #3: “If You Complain About Not Having Time to Write, Drop Out”
This is one spot where I stringently disagree with Chuck Wendig. I’m sorry, if you sign up to get a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, you are well past the point where complaining about having time to write is a sensible objection. You (and the rest of us) are shelling out significant money and time to do this, and if you can’t figure out how to actually write in your writing program, what the hell are you doing there? Students like this in my classes used to piss me off. You were told we were going to workshop your story on the 10th so we needed it by the 8th and NO you can’t have an extension because my story is up next, you lazy dipshit. This isn’t high school, kid. Suck it up.
Assertion #4: “You Must Be a Serious Reader”
Now, on the one hand, Boudinot’s definition of what makes a “serious reader” is elitist BS of the kind which I was regularly exposed to while attending my MFA program. That said, he is right – you need to read and you need to challenge yourself while you read if you expect to do good work. Reading nothing but Lois L’Amour Westerns is not a roadmap to the bestsellers list, as fun as they are. Writers need to read widely and deeply to succeed, and everybody says this. They just aren’t being jerks about it, like this guy is.
Assertion #5: “Nobody Cares If You Suffered If the Writing is Bad”
Okay, is this poorly put? Hell yes. Is it offensive and dismissive of people’s experiences? Absolutely! Would I have put it this way? No, I would not. Is he right?
I spend 3 years in my MFA reading a LOT of navel-gazing, pointless, error-laden prose about a person’s personal baggage and it sucked. A lot. This guy is picking the meanest way possible to say something (sadly) very true: nobody cares how good the story is if you are bad at telling it. Let’s not beat around the bush, shall we? Sometimes you are not the equal of the story you wish to tell. That’s a fact. What you need to do, though, is get better so that you will become the person who can tell that story. If you just want to get the story out on paper, then fine – more power to you – but there’s more to it than that in order to be a storyteller.
Assertion #6: “You Don’t Need My Help To Get Published”
This comment reflects a certain attitude towards the publishing world at the moment – that the Old Guard, the New York elite are not as essential as they were. Do I agree with him? Well, not exactly (I went traditional, after all), but he’s welcome to his bias. Honestly, much of the publishing advice I received from professors during my MFA program was a lot less clear than that, so I can’t complain.
Assertion #7: “It’s Not Important That People Think You’re Smart”
Here he is 100% correct without reservation. Furthermore, I can say that there were a lot of people in my MFA program trying very hard to seem smart (or edgy or sensitive or whatever) and it always came off as them trying too hard. A couple years of reading stuff like that, and no doubt you’d be singing the same tune as this fellow.
Assertion #8: “It’s Important to Woodshed”
Again, this is some of the best advice in the piece. The MFA (or any “writing instruction”) does not spit you out a ready-made hit machine. Writing, more often than not, requires time and privacy and perseverance. Showcasing your crappy first drafts to the universe doesn’t help anybody, least of all you. You can’t expect good commentary to come from unfinished work. It isn’t until you’ve got the whole something sitting in front of somebody that problems become clear and the good parts really shine. Woodshedding doesn’t mean suffering for your art, it means focusing on making the art rather than telling people you’re making it. Craft before coffee shop, folks.
But, you know, you don’t need to listen to me. I’m just one guy talking about his experiences, here.
So, there’s more stuff up on the intertubes about me! Go and check them out (because, seriously, they’re being nice to me and I should send traffic their way)!
Guest Blog posts!
Literarily Speaking (Wherein I discuss the importance of creating history for your fantasy worlds)
The Page 69 Test (Wherein I discuss how the approximately 69th page of THE IRON RING fits into the story as a whole)
Literal Exposure (Find out about that time I fought a rat for a towel)
Beauty in Ruins (Wherein I go through where, how, and why I wrote the book!)
Book Features! (which are all the same, mind you)
Say it with me now, folks: PUB-LI-CI-TY. We will be returning to our regularly scheduled jibber-jabber next week, I promise. Well, at least part of the time. Hey, let’s face it – all you people should be reading my book right now, anyway! How could you have time to read some silly blog posts?
But seriously, thank you one and all, for reading and supporting me. You guys all rock.
So, my first novel is out (did you hear? No? Well go out and buy it!). This, being a new experience for me, has also brought with it a bunch of unusual lessons I wasn’t really expecting. In the interest of forewarning others, I will now take you on a tour of my neuroses.
Lesson #1: Having a Book For Sale Is More Stressful Than Selling a Book
Like, 2000% more stressful. Rejection from publishers, while moderately painful, is way less worrisome than if the entire world decides it hates your book. With publishers, there’s always others, right? If they don’t like it, you can always self-publish! Who cares what those New York fat-cats think!
The thing I forgot (and that maybe a lot of writers seem to forget) is that the audience to which the book deal will grant you access is not guaranteed to like your book. So, there I was, on release day, sitting there with a case of the shakes because I was pretty sure the only people who would read and like my book were my friends and family, and at least some percentage of those people would lie about it because they love me and don’t want to hurt my feelings.
Lesson #2: There Is No Upper Limit To How Much You Can Stalk Yourself
Like, hours and hours, easily. I have been swinging by Amazon and Goodreads and Barnes and Noble so damned often that it was reaching a kind of mania. It was: “Do I have any reviews? No?” (five minutes pass) “Do I have any reviews? No?” (five minutes pass). Never have I wished I didn’t have a smart phone more.
As an addendum to this rule, I’m not really sure how you can’t look at your reviews. Like, I have honestly no idea. Sure, I can deal with them (I’ve only received one bad review so far, and that person somehow read the book before it was for sale but wasn’t given it for review, so…shady, is what I mean. Of course they’re entitled to their opinion, but…you know what? I’ll shut up now.). But not looking at them at all is pretty much beyond my willpower’s capacity. Like Pandora, I’ve gotta open the box.
Lesson #3: Analyzing Amazon Ranking is Bad For Your Health
As of this precise moment, THE IRON RING is ranked 76,698th on Amazon. On the one hand, considering that there are probably millions of books on Amazon, this isn’t all that bad. On the other hand, I am forced to reconcile the fact that 76,997 books are selling better than mine. In other words, more people than could fit inside the Superdome have books out that are better appreciated than my own. For somebody who has a pretty intense competitive streak, that is frankly driving me bonkers.
Look, I know it’s irrational – those numbers are more representational than they are actual and they fluctuated by the tens of thousands every hour, so what do they really mean, anyway? Besides, the book just came out 13 days ago, so I should cut myself some slack. Of course, much like reviews, I can’t not look, so there I am again, wondering what magical publicity button I can push to make it down at least into the four-digit realm. Then, of course, this sets off a spate of Impostor Syndrome and all kinds of other stupid senses of inadequacy that are really bad for me. I have to cut it out.
The fact is that I don’t know how well the book is selling, nor will I know until I receive my first royalty check. I’m doing everything I can to help sales (and still keep up with my other job), so I shouldn’t be down on myself. I’ve accomplished something pretty amazing here – I have to admit that. Of course, being me, I want to do better than just that. As with all things I do, I’m not in it just to play, I’m in it to win. Of course, once you “win” in anything, there is just another, bigger contest beyond the rise. That’s the nature of writing – first you try to write a book, then you try to write a good book, then you try to get a book deal, then you try to actually make money, then you try to make enough money to just write for a living. It never stops.
It is important to remember that, if you’re a writer, you can’t get into this race and expect to just win and then stop. You should be in this race because you like running.
Today, I’d like to throw a little plug in for one of my fellow authors over at Harper Voyager Impulse: Liana Brooks! The cover of her first, full-length novel THE DAY BEFORE has just been revealed. The book itself will be released on April 28th. Here’s a teaser for the book:
Friday May 17th, 2069
Alabama District 3
Commonwealth of North America
With an asthmatic wheeze the engine died. It figured. Stuck in a man’s craw, it did. This truck had been his daddy’s and his pappy’s, and before the Commonwealth government forced him to replace the diesel engine with the newfangled water doohickey, he was certain he’d pass the truck onto his son.
He’d been playing under the hood of trucks since he was six and now he was stranded. Embarrassing, that’s what it was. He climbed out of the cab to check the engine out of habit. The ice blue block of modern fuel efficiency stared back. Three hundred bucks it’d cost him, straight from his pocket.
Oh, there was a government subsidy, all right. A priority list. Major Population Centers, they said. Unite the countries of the Commonwealth on a timeline, they said. And what did all that mean?
It meant the damn Yankees got upgraded cities and free cars before the ink was dry on the Constitution and what about the little man? Nobody thought about the working class. No one cared about a man covered in oil and grease anymore.
He thumbed his cellphone on. No reception. Figured.
So much for the era of new prosperity. He’d hoof it. There was a little town about five miles down the road where he could call Ricky to bring a tow truck. It would have been cheaper to pay the diesel fines than get all this fixed.
Off schedule. Over budget. Son of a –
He stared at the distant trees. Well, it wasn’t going to get any cooler.
He grabbed his wallet and keys from the cab of his truck. The tree line looked like a good spot to answer a call from nature, then he’d see if there weren’t a shortcut through to town. A meadowlark sang. Not a bad day for a hike. Would’ve been better if it weren’t so dammed hot, but at least the humidity was low. He wouldn’t like to walk in a summer monsoon, not at his age with arthritis playing up.
Under a sprawling oak he unzipped his pants. As an afterthought, he glanced down to make sure he wouldn’t stir up a hill of fire ants.
A hand lay next to his boots.
He blinked, zipped his pants slowly, and turned around. “Hello?”
Cicadas chirped in answer.
“Are you drunk?” The quiet field that looked so peaceful only moments before was now eerily sinister. He nudged the hand with his foot. It was swollen and pale and crusted with blood, just like a prop out of a horror movie.
Maybe it was a good idea to run to the next town.
A body is found in the Alabama wilderness. The question is:
Is it a human corpse … or is it just a piece of discarded property?
Agent Samantha Rose has been exiled to a backwater assignment for the Commonwealth Bureau of Investigation, a death knell for her career. But then Sam catches a break—a murder—that could give her the boost she needs to get her life back on track. There’s a snag, though: the body is a clone, and technically that means it’s not a homicide. And yet, something about the body raises questions, not only for her, but for coroner Linsey Mackenzie.
The more they dig, the more they realize nothing about this case is what it seems … and for Sam, nothing about Mac is what it seems, either.
This case might be the way out for her, but that way could be in a bodybag.
A thrilling new mystery from Liana Brooks, THE DAY BEFORE will have you looking over your shoulder and questioning what it means to be human.
Liana Brooks once read the book GOOD OMENS by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and noted that both their biographies invited readers to send money (or banana daiquiris). That seems to have worked well for them. Liana prefers strawberry daiquiris (virgin!) and will never say no to large amounts of cash in unmarked bills.
Her books are sweet and humorous with just enough edge to keep you reading past your bedtime.
Liana was born in San Diego after bouncing around the country she’s settled (temporarily) in the great wilderness of Alaska. She can be found on Twitter (@LianaBrooks), on FaceBook, and on the web at http://www.lianabrooks.com.
Seems timely, as I dig out from another 400″ of snow.
Originally posted on Auston Habershaw:
Once more the mewling cries of fat, indulgent southlanders have disturbed mighty Vrokthar the Skull-feaster, Scourge of the Northern Wastes, and compelled him to respond. Even now, the iron rails of his battle-sledge are being oiled in the liquefied fat of his vanquished enemies by the trembling hands of his many slaves. When my team of great dire wolves is ready to venture forth, the howl of my displeasure will eclipse their own, and then you fools will understand fear.
Until then, I will explain my displeasure in mighty detail, so that you shall know your weakness before you vacate your pitiful, tiny bowels at the sound of my coming.
The magic box of light in my yurt has glowed these past months with the many and varied curses you fling upon the gentle snows and mild temperatures of your pathetic southron winters. It would appear as though the prospect…
View original 534 more words
The Blog Tour chug-eth along!
My book was also featured on Rainy Day Reviews, though it’s just the book description and the old “About” page from my blog here (and, by the by, I’ve updated said About page to be a bit less amateurish. You’re welcome.).
Finally, if you want to read THE IRON RING (and who wouldn’t? I mean, honestly, it’s a wonderful time!), but hate Kindle or Nook formats, you can now download it directly from Harper Collins using their HC Reader for both iPad and Android tablets/phones. Click here to buy!
Read it? Like it? Leave a Review Please!
So, have you read THE IRON RING yet? You have? Thank you very much! What’s that? You’ve *LIKED* it? That’s even better!
Now, I’ve one last thing to ask: Leave me a Review! Leave one on Amazon, leave one on Goodreads, leave one on Barnes and Noble! Without reviews, nobody will know my book exists, and if nobody knows it exists, nobody will buy it, and I’ve got a lot more Tyvian Reldamar adventures in me! So, please, review the book once you’re done! Thanks so much for all of your support!
(Alternately, if you hated my book, I guess you should leave a review, too, to warn off other dopes from being fleeced by my nefarious con-game of writing books. I’m hoping you folks will be in the minority, of course, but in the interest of fairness, I include this message. So there.)
If you haven’t heard enough of me yet, here’s more!
A Guest Post on Stephanie Loree’s blog: “How it Took Me 18 Years for a 3-book Deal”
An Interview of me by Theresa M Cole!
Go on, now! Go check it out!
Also: IT IS RELEASE DAY! Go and buy The Iron Ring! Go right now! It is currently only available in Kindle/Nook/E-book format, but a print edition will (hopefully) be coming soon.
The blog-tour excitement beginneth! I have a post up on Liana Brooks’ blog, so go check it out now!
Liana is a fellow Harper Voyager Impulse author and we share the same editor. Her novel, EVEN VILLIANS HAVE INTERNS (Heroes and Villains, Book 3), will be release in print tomorrow, the same day as THE IRON RING will be released virtually. I encourage you to check out her book and her blog.
Oh, and a big thanks to Liana for the signal boost!