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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On MFA Programs and the Numerous Internet Articles of Late

The last couple of weeks have brought an interesting spate of articles to light in regards to MFA programs. Before I dive in - and believe me, I'm going to dive in, so brace yourself - I should be upfront about... let's call it perspective.

First, I should tell you that I have an MFA, and I teach for a low-residency MFA program in genre fiction at Western State Colorado University. I'll get into that in more detail shortly, but in all fairness, a part of my perspective comes from being on the inside of it all.

Second, if you cruise around this very website, you'll see that I've written and published quite a number of books, under a whole bunch of different names. This isn't even all of them, since there are a handful I can't admit to due to contractual obligations. Now, going back to that perspective thing... they're all genre books, and even worse, many of them are either media tie-in or work for hire. No doubt those of you reading this who have a more "literary" world view just shivered a little bit, or perhaps even threw up in your mouth before you had to swallow the bile back down. Sorry about that. I understand your reaction, you see, because I'm... this is hard to admit... give me a moment... okay, I'm a sellout. You see, I studied poetics for almost all of my undergraduate education (University of Wisconsin - Green Bay, if you're curious) under people like Denise Sweet (who later become the Wisconsin Poet Laureate) and published work in literary magazines you've never heard of and are no doubt already defunct. My first chapbook of poetry was given great blurbs by (you'll never believe this) Kyoko Mori and Patrick McKinnon. I almost convinced Amiri Baraka, but I wasn't angry enough at the time. 

Anyway, I studied poetics and then I realized something: I loved writing and I also loved eating and paying my rent and going out to coffee and things like that. So, I turned to fiction and not literary fiction (because let's face it - that pays about as well as poetry), but genre fiction. The same genres I grew up reading. The same genres my mother spent pretty much every spare dime and then some keeping me in books to the best of her ability. The same genres that made me fall in love with story and character and the written word way back when I was too young to even know what genre meant.

So, that's part of my perspective, too, right? And if it isn't totally clear, I need to make it so: in space no one can hear you scream, and in poetry and literary fiction, damn few people can hear you, either. It's a very small world of people, some of whom are quite lovely and nice and amazingly knowledgeable, and some of whom are so invested in mental and mutual literary masturbation that to any vaguely objective outsider, the whole thing looks like a giant, self-congratulatory circle jerk. I didn't fit well into that world when push came to shove because I wanted people - lots of people - to read what I wrote while I was still around to enjoy it. I wanted to be loud.

And I mean all this in the nicest of ways because really - totally honest? - I do not give one flying fuck what you write, so long as you do. Write poems, write literary stories, write science fiction, mystery, action, memoir, anything and everything. Write what you want, read what you want... but don't look down your nose at anyone else for what they write or read. The truth is there's no such thing as a sellout, and if you think there is, you're wrong. We're writers. We tell stories and if you want to claim the writing moral high ground because you're "literary," have I got news for you: Twain was a genre writer. Poe was a genre writer. So was Dickens. And Hemingway. Steinbeck. Hawthorne. Melville. I could go on and on, but let's end with this: so are you. Dress it up how you want, literary fiction is a genre, too.

Okay, so now we've gotten the perspective part out of the way, and you'll know where I'm coming from, even if you disagree with my perspective, let alone what I've got to say next.

The article that apparently started it all was THINGS I CAN SAY ABOUT MFA WRITING PROGRAMS NOW THAT I NO LONGER TEACH IN ONE by Ryan Boudinot. Mr. Boudinot had some pretty interesting things to say about MFA programs, beginning with the assumption (I think) that they're all pretty much the same. I'm not going to refute every point he made, but there's a couple I'd like to highlight.
  • He asserts that writers are born with talent. He goes on to clarify this in a couple of minor ways, essentially concluding that not all writers are born equal. This is silliness, of course. Absolutely NO writers are born with automatic writing talent of any kind. The reason for this is because we cannot write when we emerge from the womb. We cannot read, either. Some writers show talent earlier than others. Some later. Some have an amazing grasp of story or plot or character early on, but struggle with dialogue for years. Some have this, some have that. There is no special magic dust that the talent fairy sprinkles on you at birth or in the womb that makes you a better writer at birth than someone else. What is undeniably true, however, is that some writers are better than others, at certain aspects of the art or craft, at certain times, and maybe at all times. That doesn't automatically invalidate the work of one or the other. Students don't need to be Joyce or Orwell or Wallace or even Clancy, Grisham, King, or Koontz to be the "REAL DEAL." All they need is to be themselves and dedicated to getting better. The fact that Mr. Boudinot apparently had, by his own admission, less than five "REAL DEAL" students the entire time he was teaching is, I suspect, a reflection on him, not his students. (And if you were one of his students, I'm so sorry.)
  • The taking it seriously by the time you were a teenager thing is just... idiotic and unaware.
  • The "serious reader" thing I almost get. Almost. I don't know what he actually means by serious reader. I get the feeling that he means serious in terms of the works being read, as opposed to the quantity. See, in the real world of writing (more on that shortly), a serious reader is someone who reads a lot - really a lot. In a lot of different genres. They read good books and bad books (which teach you more anyway). They re-read books they love and chuck books they hate across the room. That's a serious reader. If that's what Mr. Boudinot means, I'm on board. On the other hand, if he means that you must read serious works of literature... well, then he doesn't get this whole writing and reading thing very well, anyway.
  • Last note on this particular article. Mr. Boudinot reveals that after he got his degree, he spent seven years - seven fucking years! - writing work that no one has ever read. He asserts that in this time frame, he managed two novels and some stories totaling (sound of trumpets) 1500 pages! So... in 2555 days (not accounting for leap years), he wrote an average of 0.59 pages a day. That's... I mean... that's less than 150 words a day. Was he writing in his own blood? With a quill? How long did it take him to write that fucking article? Seriously, sir, if you're out there and reading this, two things: 1) Write faster for God's sake. Put some muscle into it and actually work the damn page. 2) Writing that no one will ever see is the exact opposite goal of the students you "taught" in your role as an MFA instructor. Even if they were literary students, they wanted someone to see it. Share your writing with the world, otherwise, well... we're back to the masturbation thing, and this time, you're all alone.
The next article I read was AN OPEN LETTER TO THAT EX-MFA CREATIVE WRITING TEACHER DUDE by Chuck Wendig. I don't have to say much about this one, because Chuck is pretty awesome all on his own, and way funnier than I am. Plus, bees.

After that, I sort of thought it would all die down, and then I read two more:
HOW THE MFA GLUT IS A DISSERVICE TO STUDENTS, TEACHERS, AND WRITERS by Anonymous and VOCATIONAL GRATITUDE AND THE MFA by Adrian Van Young. This is already a long post, so I'm going to go fast here. In regards to the first article... if you aren't willing to put your name on it - or at least a good pseudonym - you may as well stick to writing online erotica (and, btw, the name Buck Naked is already taken, so don't go there). Seriously, though, this article raises some valid points, especially about pay for play programs. The problem I have is with the assertion that there are only two potential benefits to an MFA, one of which the author immediately eliminates, and the other of which he or she dismisses.

The best part of the article is this: "If you don’t like expanding your reading tastes (or reading, period), if you can’t meet deadlines, if you have no desire to receive feedback from other people, if you have no interest in improving your work, if you just want an echo chamber instead of a critique, if you aren’t interested in questions of craft, if you think writing is a get-rich-quick scheme and are looking to write the next [insert blockbuster here], if you can’t handle rejection or criticism, if you have no desire to revise, and if you’re not comfortable with the idea that some stuff you write will never see the light of day, then don’t get an MFA. You don’t belong there. (Also, all of these qualities will make being a writer very difficult.) It is a waste of your time and money, and the time of your instructor, and your classmates who have potential and who care about their classes." That part is worth reading over a couple of times. The rest of the article... your mileage will vary.

The other article is a partial rebuttal of the very first one, and I'll leave you to read it or not, as you see fit.

Now, coming back to those things I said we would, I want to be sure that people contemplating getting their MFA actually do know a couple of things, since Mr. Boudinot is only one of a fairly significant number of people that have been in a hue and cry over MFA programs in the last five or so years.

1) Not all MFA programs are created equal. Some are funded, some are not (which means either loans or paying out of pocket). Some are full-time, on campus. Some are low-residency (and this doesn't mean the same thing at every program, either). Some are focused on the workshop model that came out of Iowa. Some (like the one I teach for) uses a curriculum-based model combined with continual workshop activity. Some, I'm sure, do it in other ways. What matters is that if you are contemplating getting your MFA, do your research. Talk to the program about curriculum and pedagogy and ask if you can talk to students in the program. In short, act like a reasonable human being about something that will require a lot of your time, if not your money, and do some homework. Make sure it's a fit for what you want as a writer, rather than trying to mold yourself into what you think the program believes is a writer.

2) Not all MFA teachers are created equal. Wait, let me rephrase: not all teachers are created equal. Sure, some of us are born with the talent to teach, but many others will struggle all their lives to even grasp the very basics of how to give a lecture on the shape of plot to a group of hung-over twenty-somethings with the idea that they'll be the next ______. Okay, that was snark. Of course there are good teachers and bad teachers. You do remember your undergraduate experience, right? Some good, some bad. How about high school? Same thing. The good news for MFA students is that even when they stumble upon the so-called "bad" teacher, there are still things to learn, even if it's what you shouldn't do, if you decide to teach someday yourself. Even if it's what you disagree with, because part of learning to write well IS learning what not to do, what you don't agree with with, what doesn't work for you as a writer.

3) For the sake of argument, let's assume you do want to get an MFA. Here's what comes with it at the very end: ideally, you will have read a lot, written a lot more, engaged/talked a lot with fellow students and/or instructor(s), and you'll get a nice piece of paper when you graduate that says you have an MFA. Any program that promises more than this is lying. There are no guarantees of publication or a teaching job of any kind. To be fair, there are no guarantees of a job with any degree, but finding a full-time, tenure track position these days is very difficult. Not impossible. Just very difficult. Welcome to life. If this is what you love to do and you want to do it, then very difficult won't matter one bit to you, and oh, btw, writing well is very difficult, too.

So, now the end of this very long rant. If any article on the Internet is enough to convince you to get or not get your MFA, please seek immediate help from a qualified professional of some kind. It's your life and, more importantly, your dream. Chase it in the way that seems best to you, and trust me, born with talent or not, you'll have a far better chance of achieving it.

Write on,

Russell

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Uber Rare Blog Post

I realized early this morning that I haven't updated this blog since last June. Last June. That's ridiculous, of course. I'm committed to doing a better job with that this year, and am going to try and post at least once a month. With that in mind...

2015 is off to a busy start. My spring semester classes at Western State Colorado University start today, and my first 8 week class for Excelsior college started last Monday. Teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses - in the same subject - is challenging. The students bring differing sets of skills and concerns to the material, but at both institutions, the vast majority of my students are non-traditional: ages and backgrounds vary greatly. At Excelsior, many of the students are active military, so the online environment is perfectly suited for them, but it can be tricky, too, as they are often called to be away from their computer at the last second. At Western, we're still working through the new curriculum, which means a lot of regular staff meetings and adjustments based on student input.

On the writing front, last fall, I co-wrote a feature film script with a friend, and we're now jumping through the usual Hollywood hoops in terms of rewrites with a producer. We're also working on a television show treatment together and planning our next feature script. I've found the break from traditional fiction really exhilarating from a creative point of view. I imagine I'll come back to it - in fact, I know I will, as I have at least a couple of novel ideas that I want to pursue - but the industry has changed so much that I'm not sure what it will even look like when I do write those projects. (More on that subject later.) I also have a nonfiction book I'd like to finish this year.

In other news... I quit smoking on Monday, January 5th. It's been a week now. People tell me it gets easier, but so far no joy on that front. It's pure fucking misery. We also switched our diet here in the household to a primarily Mediterranean diet. It's working pretty well for Sherri, and I can live with it. One of the things we rapidly discovered was that after a week on that, heavier foods feel really heavy - even things I typically love, like red meat. We're allowing ourselves one cheat day a week, but when we did that, both of us were kind of "blech" with it.

I'll do another post soon on books I've read over the relatively recent past, and I may dive into the delicate subject of what's gone wrong with the book publishing industry. In the meantime, it's back to work for me. I hope your 2015 is off to a great start.

Write on,
Russell

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Recent Reading Thoughts

It's ridiculous how difficult I find it to update this blog. The only excuse I can offer is being far too busy, and that (while true) sounds lame even to me. Still, one of the things I have been working on this past year is getting my annual reading back up to my own standards. I like to clear between 125 and 150 books a year, and I'm closing in on that pace once again.

So, without further ado, I thought I'd share some very brief thoughts on some of the books I've read recently - and no, I don't mention books I didn't like. Authors have a tough enough go of it without me piling on. These are presented in no particular order or sequence.

THE BROKEN EMPIRE TRILOGY by Mark Lawrence (Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns, and Emperor of Thorns): Aside from the fact that long before Mr. Lawrence published his series, I had a short story with the title "King of Thorns", there's a lot to like about this series. I read the first two titles, waited for the third, and then reread all of them at one go. The story of Jorg Ancrath as he rises from the ruins of his youth to the top of a massive empire is one that will stay with me a long time. Time and again, Lawrence delivers on multiple levels, especially in terms of character and world-building. This is primarily a fantasy series, but there's also a touch of science fiction. I don't want to ruin it for you, so let me just say this: go forth and buy it. You won't be disappointed.

THE DRESDEN FILES by Jim Butcher (Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, and Summer Knight): Obviously, if you follow this series at all, you'll immediately recognize that this isn't even close to all of them. I stopped after four because I needed a break. Butcher's popularity is well deserved, though I actually like his Codex Alera series a tiny bit better. In any case, smooth writing and plotting make for enjoyable reading in the urban fantasy arena and following the harrowing adventures of wizard Harry Dresden is a good time.

THE LINE by J.D. Horn (Book 1 of the Witching Savannah series): An enjoyable, fast read about a witching family in Savannah, Georgia. At times, it suffered from a bit too much deus ex machina, but it made up for this with its genuine charm and engaging main character - Mercy Taylor - the only one in her family who isn't a witch.

CINDER by Marissa Meyer (Book 1 of the Lunar Chronicles): A futuristic riff on Cinderella, featuring a cyborg mechanic and a world where class is everything, I was quite intrigued by this novel. It's a little slow at the beginning, but more than makes up for it as the story moves along and introduces more and more complexities as Cinder gets caught up in the intrigue of international politics and a plague that could kills thousands.

THRONE OF GLASS and CROWN OF MIDNIGHT by Sarah J. Maas (Throne of Glass series): A fantasy novel featuring an 18-year-old assassin named Celaena Sardothien in a contest to become the royal assassin, and what keeping up the charade of serving an evil king will ultimately cost. I really like this series so far, and look forward to reading the next installment.

In addition to those listed above, I've read a number of other enjoyable books recently, including: Legacy: The Arthurian Saga by Mary Stewart, Odd Apocalypse by Dean Koontz, The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett, the first two installments in the Vampire Academy series by Rachel Mead, a couple of Richard Castle novels, The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston, the first three books in Kim Harrison's Hollow's series, and the most recent Sandman Slim novel by Richard Kadrey.

Back in the days when I was a full-time editor, I found that reading for pleasure - just for the joy of finding a story to get lost in - was being slowly sapped away. Now that I don't edit full time, I've been able to resume reading for just that reason, and I must say I've missed it quite a bit.

And with that, let me encourage you to read on and share your own recent reads in the comments below.

Write on,
Russell