Life’s been busy. As such, I have more to write about than ever – but less time to do so. Ah, there’s the rub. But a blog only provides space for an inkling of information anyway, small smatterings of commentary that barely scratch the surface of a full, evolving life. I always feel somewhat guilty – as if not accounting for chunks of living will leave readers confused in the wake, incapable of understanding of my motivations for action – since what they see is nothing but a Swiss cheese version of what goes on. Well – sometimes, a small dose of something (removed) is far more satisfying than a full frontal encounter, so perhaps my sketchy reports serve to make me more interesting.
Anyway – sorry for everything I don’t share. They say writing is an act of making choices. The choices we make have a significant impact on how a reader perceives our story. I assume that theory can be applied here – my blog is sort of a tale of what goes on in the heart of Ginny. I will strive to make good choices and hit key points so it will leave a resonance behind.
Considering that – today, I want to talk about my MFA residency experience.
When I went to Boston for my first term, a year ago, I was anxious. I spent most of the time getting acquainted with the process of this manner of literary education – it was all very alien to me. I was trying to guess how all the information would all fall into place and, considering I thought of myself as a dancer first, I felt academically challenged. Almost as if I’d bitten off more than my hunger for learning could digest. But I was excited to be participating in such a serious writing endeavor – even if I was a bit overwhelmed.
My second term, I was anxious as well. But this time, it was frustration that fueled me – I was looking for concrete answers regarding what constitutes literary merit, and I wanted proof that I was improving. I wasn’t happy with the loose, “everything has merit – its art” attitude. I wanted to approach writing like dance – technical proficiency as the path to artistic freedom. (And I believe still, theoretically, technical proficiency is important). I wanted rules to follow, and measurable results. I expected more from my teachers than they were willing to give. Actually – I wanted more than they had the capacity to give, considering the nature of the beast. I was also wrestling with an avalanche of emotional issues (separation pains, identity crisis, self-doubt – just to name a few) which did not put me the mood to roll with the literary punches. Made me an annoying student, I think.
Now – I’ve gone to Lesley for my third term. Different story. I wasn’t anxious. In fact, if anything, I wasn’t in the mood to go – other things were demanding my emotional energy and I wasn’t up for another challenge of any sort. But, I dragged myself to the residency thinking it might just be a one-year slump. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a break from school – all the reading and writing wears you down.
But as expected, the residency pumped me up, helping me redefine my artistic perspective and it served to help me gain a deeper understanding of the process of learning to write. I’ve finally accepted that there are no concrete answers and no professor can pinpoint what elements are necessary, or what techniques can be honed to create a piece that constitutes literary merit. It is just something you feel – like jazz music. Someone once asked Benny Goodman what jazz was, and he answered, “If you gotta ask, you ain’t got it.” I think that applies to literary writing too.
But, while definitions are fleeting, I believe that the combination of readings, seminars, exercises, workshops and critical annotations combine to leave an impact that takes the place of the more linear learning approach one uses to study other things, like law . . . or dance. While no one thing seems to provide answers you can put into words, I think the answers we seek are absorbed and processed with a silent poignancy. We student’s don’t realize we are learning, but we are – and as result, we’re impeccably changed as readers and writers.
I felt a deeper understanding in all of the classes this time. I was less impressed for surface reasons, and at the same time, more impressed for deeper reasons, when guest authors did their readings. I also believe I had more insight to offer my peers in the workshop process (and several teachers and students thanked me for my contributions, so I don’t think I am off in this estimation). All in all, I felt like a writer – a potentially good writer, for the first time ever.
This does not mean that I didn’t wrestle with my normal bout of insecurity or frustration. Unfortunately, academia has a way of bringing me to my knees. I have childhood baggage to thank for that.
I am very appreciative of my current mentor. She is a strongly opinionated, intimidating, black intellectual – as a writer she has received critical acclaim and won several literary awards for her book, “The Good Negress.” She tends to write about social issues and black heritage. She is also a very focused teacher, which is why I campaigned to get her assigned as my mentor. A few of my friends asked whom I was working with and when I told them, they grimaced and said, “Aren’t you intimidated? I’d be scared to death to work with her.”
But I am ultimately comfortable with A.J. I am drawn to anyone with passion for what they believe, and she is swamped in it. And I like her as a person too. She says funny things, like when she requests manuscripts she demands they are printed on two sides of the page. Even though it is against traditional format she says she likes it her way . . . for the trees . (Environmentally conscious? We will get along fine.)
She saw me crossing campus to attend a seminar and I held the door for her because her hands were full of papers. She asked me where I was going. I said,
“To the seminar, Short Story as Portraiture.”
She made a face and said, “Yea . . . don’t ever do that.”
Ha. I knew it was not an insult to the teacher giving that particular seminar, but more that she doesn’t feel portraiture serves as soul purpose for a story. It doesn’t matter if I agree or not, – I just love that she feels strongly about her art and has her own truths and she is not afraid to voice them to her students.
For lots of reasons, I really like her.
But one thing occurred that shook me this residency. (There is always something.) A huge part of the learning process, at least half of our time in residency is devoted to it, is workshopping our pieces – stories or novel excerpts the students have written. We are divided into large and small groups of 8 and 4 respectively, and in these groups, assisted by our mentors, each piece is given one to 1 ½ hours of attention. We discuss writing techniques, storyline, and how we, as readers, perceive the work. Discussion ensues in an attempt to give the author insight and to help define ways to improve the work. It is a very important element to developing your craft.
In our large workshop, a great deal of time was spent on the first manuscript – a piece that had some evident technical writing flaws as well as some character issues. A.J. seemed to use this piece as a prime example for teaching us some major concepts, and as such, we spent a great deal of time on it. My piece was to be workshopped next, and because of time management (or lack of time management), we only had 25 minutes to spend on my story – the story about the tree. Because it was a theme-oriented piece (Derrick’s View isn’t about a tree at all, but about how artistic individuals see the world differently from those who see things more literally) the workshop was a bit “off”. The students wanted to take the story literally and struggled to understand what I was attempting to say. They thought the man was crazy until the end. I pointed out that their perceptions about the piece were exactly what I intended – that I was very deliberate in setting every line – I wanted to send a message that was not literal – more subtle. As such, since I was successful at accomplishing what I wanted to do, and since this wasn’t satisfying to the reader, then the piece must be a failure. A.J. hated this attitude. She said there are no failures – but I think if your concept sucks, that can be considered a flop, don’t you?
She then said, “The problem with you is you have good writing disease. You are such a good writer that it hides all the deeper problems underneath. People don’t see what is wrong when they read your work.”
Now this was difficult for me to wrap my mind around. On the one hand, my mentor was saying I am a very good writer – I’ve been dying for someone, anyone who knows what they are looking at, to say that particular thing to me. On the other hand, her comment implies there are deeper issues – problems – in my work. I asked her to define what those deeper problems are.
She said, “It is different for every story, there are never clear cut issues.”
I asked how my good writing hid my flaws, and I wanted to know if everyone knew there were problems or if it was something only a more sophisticated reader would notice. She couldn’t really answer me. She just kept saying my problem was I had “good-writer-itus.”
That night at dinner one of my workshop peers said, “I think you were jipped today. I bet we return to your piece tomorrow because we really didn’t discuss it all that much. You deserve time.”
I told her I didn’t mind that we breezed over the story- but personally, I did feel as if the story lacked something, for why else would the teacher chose notl to talk much about it?
The next few days, we continued to workshop pieces, and A.J. had plenty to say about everyone’s work. But then, as we came to the conclusion of the small workshops, she skipped me and took students out of the set order. And don’t you know that time was mismanaged again and we ended up with only 20 minutes left with two pieces left to critique. One was a two-paragraph submission from a senior, and the other was my story, Impressions,– some 7 pages. Hummmm……… Since 20 minutes isn’t long enough to critique anything in depth, I volunteered to be skipped. I said, ” I can learn from all the conversation, lets just go on with Diane’s work.” And we did.
A.J. concluded the session by saying, “I’m taking you up on your offer to skip you because your story is not a part of your thesis anyway (Remember, I am writing my dance book for my thesis) and I only like to work on pieces that a student is truly invested in.”
This bothered me. For one thing, I wasn’t really workshopped at all this residency, and I know that is vital to improving. This is silence, and as I made clear before, silence unnerves me. For another, I didn’t like the idea that my mentor thought I wasn’t invested in my work.
The next day, we had a private meeting to prepare my 6 months learning contract . I pointed out to her that I sent in a story rather than a book submission because my previous mentors suggested I do so, I was disappointed that my work was being dismissed. Heck, I was following professional recommendations – had she asked for portions of my book, I’d have sent it . I did e-mail her in advance to discuss my submission.
I also felt that whatever problems I have in my writing are probably across the board, and they would reveal themselves in a short story or my book. As such, I felt it was important to review my work no mater what I sent in, and what I learn from any workshop could be applied to my bigger project. (And heck, I might want some short stories to send to literary competitions or something so discussing them would help me a great deal.) I made it clear that I didn’t want to just have teachers hold my hand and help me doctor a single project so I graduate with a passable book. Heck with writing a book at school. I want an MFA to learn to write better. I know some MFA’s discourage book projects all together with the belief that more is learned from writing short stories. If that’s true, my submitting stories is an imporatant learning opportunity – which is why I do it.
Then I told her that just because I wrote a short story during the two-week break it and didn’t labor over it for months, didn’t mean I wasn’t invested in the piece. Actually, I am rather prolific and I can write a story about anything with a moments notice. It doesn’t mean I don’t struggle to write the story well. It is just my process. I don’t have to labor over creating a story – they just come to me – but developing the idea once it is set down is my struggle.
She pretty much ignored everything I said. She said, “Are you aware that the people in this program spend months on the pieces they send, and that in many cases, they have worked with other teachers on it too?”
I pointed out that that was a bit confusing, considering the pieces had some obvious flaws, everything from week characterization to poor sentence construction. The thing is, I can see their flaws like huge gaping smudges on a paper. My flaws, however, are hard for me to see, and I want help with that. I feel blind to my own weaknesses and this makes me feel horrible. Inadequate. I can’t fix what I don’t see.
She said, “I bet it drives you crazy to read all these manuscripts where many students can’t even construct a sentence well – when they are missing basic fiction elements. You mastered that stuff ages ago. ”
I agreed that it did perplex me. Again, I pointed out that I wanted help to see the “serious” problems underscoring my good writing, and as things were going, I felt blind – frustrated. And if I was such a good writer, why didn’t I get into this program on the first try? Why were these other writers with basic writing skills lacking, welcomed so warmly. What did they have that I didn’t have?
She said, “That is a good question to ask.”
I was thinking, what does she mean? That it is a good question to ask myself, or a good question for the staff to ask the powers that be? I kept trying to reroute the conversation to what elements my work might be lacking – the stuff that left a more poignant resonance behind. But we never seemed to talk about that. The thing is, I am left feeling like something is wrong with my work – but no one wants to tell me what that is.
She asked me to send her my entire book – rewritten in it’s original format (I told her I wrote it all in 1st person, but I was in the process of changing it back again and adding other elements – flashbacks and a serious of conversations with a therapist to make it stronger.)
She said, “Fix it and sent it to me.” – She would sit on it awhile. Then, she told me to finish the entire story immediately afterwards (That is at least 150 more pages in the next two months), because without a finished product, we can’t begin the revision process (which is her specialty).
I said, “Will do” . . . but I was shitting bricks at the thought.
In the end, I don’t know what I think or how I feel about my meeting or the residency experience.
A.J. asked me on the last day, “What have you learned from our time together.”
I said, “Well, most of what we discussed about the other writers work in workshop is stuff that doesn’t apply to me. I don’t do the things they are doing wrong. So I guess, what I have learned is that I have good instincts, even if I don’t know what I’m doing.”
She smiled and said, “That’s good.”
Is it? Is it good to leave only knowing you were on the right path by coincidence or accident? With no new applicable knowledge? I’m not sure.
So, I didn’t get workshopped. I was told I’m a good writer and that is my problem. I don’t know what that means and as you can imagine, it drives me crazy.
And as result, I wrote my little blog about how I feel that what people don’t say is so much more difficult to process than what they do say. I guess it is hard to understand where I’m coming from, and yet, when you are someone who hangs desperately to evidence of faith or understanding, silence is frustrating.
So, now I am buried in my book. I’m determined to finish this sucker and get it out of my head and into my professor’s hands. Let her wade through all that good writing to discover the deeper problems underneath and point them out so I can fix them. Or not. I feel on fire now. Determined to get finished with school and move on to less obscure elements regarding fiction. This literary world is like trying to contain sand in a colander. Since I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no answers here, I want to stop seeking them altogether and just write what I want without second-guessing myself at every turn.
I feel, sometimes, like a good writer – maybe so good that I was skipped because my work wasn’t flawed enough to require intense attention. And there are no obvious weaknesses to use as a springboard for talking about technique with the group. My work is too close to what we are striving to do so it doesn’t demand the reflection every other person’s work in the program is getting. Perhaps, I am harder to teach because I am advanced.
But I also feel, sometimes, like a horrible writer. Maybe so horrible that I was skipped because my work has so little merit that it isn’t worth any attention at all. It might be so filled with weaknesses that a teacher doesn’t know where to begin. So they ignore it all together. I am impossible to teach because I am so far from what is accceptable in the literary world that it is easier to dismiss me altogether.
That’s it. I feel DISMISSED. And this is impossible to comprehend in an MFA that is designed to help everyone meet their own potential.
I swing between these two drastic poles – ultra confident – ultra intimidated.
Art is painful. Writing is painful. And doing so without any validation that you are on the right course (or wrong) is painful.
This has been a long letter, and I have TONS work to do. I will write about something more fun next time. Adieu.