Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Third Packet

Here’s the cover letter to the third packet I sent to my teacher Sharon Bryan during the first semester of my Lesley MFA.

Dear Sharon:

It was such a pleasure to meet up with you in person last week. Written correspondence is a thing to treasure but there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. And it’s always great to have an excuse to sit and chat at the Algiers.

As I said to you via email, I really enjoyed Heather McHugh’s playful approach to language – especially the way that she plays with the multiple meanings and connotations of a single word. Picking her up reminded me that working for an MFA is something I undertook for the pleasure of the task rather than the obligation of the schoolwork. Here’s one example of her wordplay that I didn’t include in my craft annotation: Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Third Packet”

Dispatches from an MFA: Nonlinear Time

As so many writers do, I’ve been letting the perfect get in the way of the good when it comes to these dispatches. I thought it would be a simple matter to re-purpose some of the prose that I sent along with my monthly packets, but the work involved in creating the packets (along with all of my less writerly responsibilities) makes even that relatively easy task more difficult than anticipated. I’m sure I’ll share that work at a later point. But for right now, let me discuss a thorny problem I’ve been having when it comes to my own poems — a craft element, as one would call it in the creative-writing MFA world.

The great problem I’m working on this month is the use of nonlinear time in a single poem — how to transition from one scene to another and to another or back to the first while making the poem feel all of a piece. There’s a lot of talk about keeping the reader in the “moment” of the poem, so this feels like an advanced technique to me, and one that I really want to master.

I did a lot of hunting for poems that use this particular technique and finally had to resort to crowdsourcing (thank God/dess for one particular Facebook community of women poets) to find relevant poems. So far, most of my work this packet has been of the thinking, reading, and researching variety, so it’s a relief to have at least half of one craft annotation finished. I’m trying not to think about the relatively short time remaining before the entire thing is due. As Anne Lamott would say, you do it bird by bird.

Here’s a listing of the poems I’ve found so far, with links where appropriate and bibliographical references where not:

So far, the key seems to be anchoring the work in one particular image or phrase, especially by beginning and ending with it. While I’ve been aware of Robert Pinksy’s work since I moved to Boston 16 years ago, it wasn’t until I read “Shirt” that I became aware of the depth of his own craft. This poem in particular swings back and forth from the moment of putting on a shirt to all the implications of the object itself — stitched together most appropriate with the poetic technique of cataloging and the metric iambs he uses in his lists.

Do you know of a particular poem that also deals with nonlinear time?


Two clock faces photo credit Ron Kroetz via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Dispatches From an MFA Program: The First Packet

Creating my very first packet for the Lesley low-residency MFA program was both easier and more difficult than I thought it would be. It’s difficult to get over that voice of self-doubt in the back of my head, the one that says both “your work must be perfect” and “your work will never be perfect.” In one of her seminars, Erin Belieu observed that the voice of self-doubt is just as much ego as the voice of complacency and overconfidence. And it’s impossible to get into the flow state so necessary for writing when the ego is up.

Listening to the program’s professors reflect on their own practices as writers was a tremendous help to me. In a getting-to-know-you session with our mentors, I asked “what was the most difficult poem you wrote?” Their thoughtful answers led to some wonderfully deep discussions about the very reasons for writing. My mentor Sharon Bryan made a comment about a poem’s emotional truth that resonated with me. Even though poetry is a powerful tool that uses words in semi-rational ways to appeal to that emotional mind, it’s not something I’d ever heard talked about in previous workshops.

I came to Lesley with a certain amount of emotional baggage.  Continue reading “Dispatches From an MFA Program: The First Packet”

Existential Angst and Taking Writing Seriously

About a week ago Ryan Boudinot published an article in The Stranger called Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. It’s been making the rounds of the blogosphere, and plenty of people have plenty to say about it. It’s an anti-inspiration article. And it’s helpful to consider it in context. Mr. Boudinot had just emerged from that particular kind of hell only a teacher of creative writing knows. A good teacher has the ability to ferret out the tiniest kernel of good writing, to focus on it, nurture it, and help it bloom. Sometimes the fruit of all that labor is turning a promising writer into an amazing writer. And sometimes it’s just turning a terrible writer into a passable writer. On a good day, this kind of work is its own reward*. But nobody has a good day every day.

And no doubt, it was a massive relief for him to take off that teacher hat and say the things a teacher can never say. Things like:

  • Writers are born with talent.
  • If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.
  • If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
  • If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
  • No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.
  • You don’t need my help to get published.

I’ve read some pretty execrable things in my time and thought to myself, “There is no way that I can even begin to help this writer improve.” I once spent hours on an email explaining to a young writer why I wasn’t going to review her book. In fact, I spent longer on that email than I would have on a review that trashed the book, because that book was godawful, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by saying, “Your book is godawful. No amount of workshopping will save this book.” I should have just stuck with the form letter, because this godawful writer has written ten more novels than I have, and she’s found a publisher who will print them. And at the end of the day, being a good writer isn’t the thing that gets you published. Ass in chair and persistence is.

I agreed with some of the points in the article, and its snarky tone was rather amusing. But I also knew it was a really horrible thing for me to read. Especially this bit, which really cut me to the quick:

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

Inside every writer is that little niggling voice of self-doubt, that little voice that says, “What if I’m just a hack? Why bother? Maybe I should just take up accounting instead.” The difference between a writer and an aspiring writer is the ability to modulate that voice. Harnessed properly, that voice drives me to improve my craft. But left to its own devices, it grows into a monster that prevents me from picking up the pen at all.

Good writing is much harder to quantify than good accounting. It’s the subject of much debate in academic circles, and ultimately it’s a matter of personal taste. You don’t need an MFA to have an opinion about a book, or even to get one published. In fact, you don’t need to be a good writer for your book to sell like hotcakes. You just need to put your ass in your chair, to keep writing, and to find your audience.

Mr. Boudinot never told me I don’t take my writing seriously. He didn’t need to. My own little niggling voice of self-doubt did it for me. Because clearly, if I haven’t published The Great American Novel by now, I must not be taking my writing seriously. Never mind that I’m a poet and not a novelist. Never mind that I’ve been writing steadily since the age of 9, that I was the kind of kid who spent her afternoons in the library after school. Never mind that publication doesn’t necessarily correlate with “taking writing seriously.” If anything, I take writing too seriously. Sometimes I take it so seriously that it paralyzes me. Like so many writers before me, I’ll get ahead of myself and start thinking about my audience instead of focusing on the real reason why any of us write: for that fleeting, perfect moment of having written.

I woke up this morning with my usual fortnightly bout of existential angst. Any writer with her salt knows what I’m talking about. It goes something like this: Why bother trying to be a better poet when so few people even read the stuff? Maybe I should just try to be a fiction writer instead. Maybe I should write a memoir. Maybe I should just give the whole thing up and become an accountant. What on earth am I thinking trying to change careers at this point in my life? Why can’t I just be satisfied with what I have? Why is being a writer so important to me anyway? Am I just a hack? Am I just in denial about being a hack? Does any of this really matter? What is the point of existence? Do I even really exist? And who is this “I” who worries about whether or not I exist?

I can’t blame any of these thoughts — or the resulting angst — on Mr. Boudinot. Experience tells me that they will pass, and that my confidence will return. I’ll keep plugging along with my morning pages and my drafts and my submissions to literary magazines with tiny readerships. And I’ll do it for the best reason I can think of to keep writing: for that fleeting, perfect moment when I think I’m any good at it.



* Which is good, because the monetary rewards aren’t much.

Photo of broken pencil courtesy of Marle Coleman under Creative Commons license.