April 18, 2016

Motivation Monday: Ira Glass

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

April 7, 2016

MFA Programs vs. DIY-ing Your MFA

Last week I blogged about my favorite podcasts, and at the top was DIY MFA. It’s a do-it-yourself approach to an MFA methodology. Recently, they did an episode about the heated debate between MFA lovers and haters, so I thought I’d weigh in!

 First, I don’t have an MFA, but I do have an MA in American Literature and Culture. I don’t know how every school does it, but at the university I attended, the MA and MFA programs were tightly connected. The students from both degree programs interacted daily in classes, as writing teachers, as friends and cohorts, and we were able to choose our coursework from both programs. So, while I wasn’t specifically studying to earn my MFA, I did take a lot of MFA coursework, and some of my favorite professors and learning outcomes came from the MFA track.

Needless to say, I’m pro-MFA. I feel like there are things you can gain from a graduate program that it’s hard to gain any other way. A few of those are:
·      Interactions with brilliant professors with similar interests
·      Constant workshopping of your writing
·      Focused syllabus/learning plan
·      Rigorous and diverse reading lists
·      Opportunities to teach writing courses to college students

Graduate school, for me, was a priceless experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I loved it, and I have lifelong friends and career experience because of it. However, I realize it’s not always feasible for a lot of reasons. I had a supportive spouse (financially and emotionally). I had a mother who watched my kids while I was in classes. I had a topnotch university twenty minutes from my home. It was still very challenging--physically, emotionally, financially, and intellectually--but I realize I had luxuries that a lot of people don’t have.

I guess that’s what got me excited about the DIY MFA podcast. At first I thought it would be an MFA-hater program, but it’s based on the same sound techniques that I loved about grad school:
·      Focused Writing
·      Purposeful Reading
·      Community Building (this covers workshopping with CPs, etc. and learning from those with more developed skillsets)

The only thing I valued about my program that this doesn’t entail, really, is teaching to others, but I think that comes naturally as you get better at whatever skill you’re developing.

I especially love Hoffer’s quote listed above because I do believe the learning, the continued progress—either by yourself or within an MFA program—is what makes the learners the ones who will succeed in the writing business. It’s evolving so quickly that even though I 110% endorse MA/MFA programs any chance I get, there’s still a need to learn and grow and change with the industry.

My take on the debate?

Does an MFA matter? Absolutely. It builds a foundation of learning and focus that few people are disciplined enough to attain on their own.

Does that mean a degree is essential? Absolutely not. If you can create the structure and discipline and focus for yourself that these programs construct, then more power to you. Because even after an MFA program is said and done, you’re the one who has to incorporate and maintain the ideas for them to do any good.

As writers, we’re so lucky to have unlimited resources at our fingertips. Tools like social media, web courses, books, conferences, critique groups, and many other valuable assets, just begging for us to use them and succeed.

Degree or no degree, whether or not we succeed as writers depends entirely on us as individuals.  MFAs are just another great tool for learning the necessary skills.

April 4, 2016

Motivation Monday: E.B. White

"Always be on the lookout for 
the presence of wonder."  
Charlotte's Web

E.B. White is most commonly known for his children's books, but he was a prolific writer in a lot of different areas. He inspires me because he dabbled in many different types of craft, and he was both a literary and commercial success by any standards.

Fun Facts about E.B. White:

    • Real name is Elwyn Brooks White
    • Lived 1899-1985, and died at his farm house in Maine that inspired Charlotte's Web
    • Attended Cornell University, where he worked for the school newspaper. Later wrote for The New Yorker.
    • Hey, English majors, remember that pesky Strunk and White book that was the bible for stylistic writing? Our friend E.B. is the White in that equation!
    • He was shy and reclusive
    • His granddaughter, Martha White, compiled a book of his greatest quotes.
      So What?
      I love Charlotte's Web. It inspired my novice love of spiders, which led to my keeping black widows as a teenager. They would hatch lots of babies, cannibalize each other, and be otherwise fascinating and beautiful creatures. But I digress...

      NPR has a fantastic article about White and the real Charlotte and the real barn that inspired the story. It's personal and moving, and you should check it out HERE. But the part I love best is this:

      "One early fall morning in 1949, E.B. White walked into the barn of his farm in Maine and saw a spider web. That in itself was nothing new, but this web, with its elaborate loops and whorls that glistened with early morning dew, caught his attention."

      He simply noticed something different. That's what led to him writing one of the most acclaimed children's books of all time. A lovely, unassuming moment in nature caught his attention.

      I've been thinking a lot lately about refilling our creative wells. Even with unlimited ambition to succeed, sometimes we all burn out. I believe that one of the few things we control as writers--and one of the things that makes us so awesome--is a never-ending curiosity.

      So, my real "so what" is this: go for a walk. Explore an abandoned building. Visit a place you've never been before, even if it's seemingly small or inconsequential (like a barn). Take time to breathe. And above all, "always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder."