YA vs MFA

I’m not a rule-breaker. I like order and organization (lord help you if you try to cut in front of me in the burrito line). And generally I don’t go looking for trouble. Except when it comes to writing YA.

I was in my second year of my MFA program at Emerson College when I signed up for a “Writing the First Novel” class. I’d spent my first year focusing on literary short stories and was excited to try a longer project that veered more into the territory of YA. The week before class started, I tossed around ideas—maybe I could focus on that humorous character I’d been toying with since college; maybe a Pride and Prejudice adaptation set in a high school debate club; maybe I could expand that short story that needed a little more room and a little more voice.

Cut to the first class, reading a syllabus that included the dictate: no genre fiction, including fantasy, sci-fi, romance or young adult fiction.Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Andrew Jason Valencia

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Andrew Jason Valencia, an MFA candidate at the University of South Carolina. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AValenciaWrites —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

photoOf all the adjustments I had to make when I enrolled in an MFA program, coming to terms with depression was the most confusing. For those of us who study fiction, it’s easy to fall into the habit of viewing life in terms of epiphanies, of measuring our personal growth according to moments of clarity or transcendence, when suddenly we feel that something major has changed, and that the change will be permanent. Or, as the character Bonaparte puts it in Frank O’Connor’s story “Guest of the Nation”: “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”

The problem with depression is that the condition often presents itself as a total absence of feeling, good or bad—so that even if you find yourself in a moment when things suddenly seem clear, it’s unlikely that your brain will register the experience accordingly.

Continue Reading

POC vs PLOT: The MFA, Chipotle Cups, and Narratives We Crave

la-ar-weigh-in-on-your-favorite-cosby-sweater--002By now it seems everyone’s read Junot Diaz’s MFA vs POC blog on the New Yorker website. Even my freshmen at Cornell these days say to me, “Dan, was it really like that?” Usually I just shrug in response. I was a notorious recluse in my MFA. I had a girlfriend—now fiancé—in New York City who I visited every other weekend, and during that time I was watching a lot of films and HBO GO, desperately trying to figure out how narrative worked.

Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Sarah Sherman

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Sarah Sherman, an MFA candidate at The College of Saint Rose. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

64440_10202770643213471_1562209064_nBefore speaking to us, he sat comfortably in the middle of the room with his shoes off and his eyes closed. I imagined him praying to Buddha, asking for a warm and welcoming group of students—which, luckily, we were. The class was Advanced Creative Nonfiction, led by a visiting writer, Sparrow. Some of us had Googled him, read about how he picketed The New Yorker, laughed at his old, hippie appearance. But still we didn’t know quite what to expect.

Continue Reading

Get Real! Or Maybe Don’t Get Real? A Conversation with Lincoln Michel (Part 2)

Recently, on social media, Gigantic magazine editor Lincoln Michel questioned the label of “realism.” I write “realism,” and I’m branching into other genres, so I introduced myself and asked a few more questions. Our conversation, conducted over e-mail, spanned several days, topics, and now two blog entries for Ploughshares.

Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.

Part 1 can be found here. In Part 2, we discuss “realism” in writing workshops, shifts in the literary market, and how we both approach writing “non-realism.”

Publicicity image of Lincoln Michel. Rebecca Meacham: Earlier in our conversation, we discussed writers who work in more than one genre. There seems to be a move in the last decade toward genre-infused work in the mainstream—and that’s welcome news.

Back in 2003 when I was shopping my first book, I was encouraged to make the stories alike to “unify” the collection. Do you think versatility—in genre, form, voice, theme—is welcomed nowadays? Established writers make genre leaps: Isabel Allende just published a murder mystery, for example. Even debut writers, like Jamie Quatro, are garnering praise for their range.

Lincoln Michel: I do think it’s more accepted—hell, almost expected—for literary writers to dip into genre these days. Colson Whitehead wrote a zombie book, Sherman Alexie wrote a YA book, Cormac McCarthy wrote a post-apocalyptic book, and so on. (I myself am finishing up an anthology of science flash fiction, coedited with Nadxieli Nieto, that got a tremendous response from literary writers and readers when we had a Kickstarter.)

At the same time, those books I mentioned tend to use a fairly established genre or subgenre where audiences are familiar with the topes and conventions. Obviously those authors, being great, subvert and complicate those conventions in interesting ways.

Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: E.B. Bartels

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from E.B. Bartels, a student in the MFA program at Columbia University. You can follow her on Twitter @eb_bartels—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

EB Bartels - headshot

Photo: Janna Herman

Usually, when writing, I practice what I call The Withholding Method:

You wake up—time to write. But first you want coffee. STOP. Have you written a sentence yet? Write a sentence, then make coffee. Now you want to drink the coffee? NO! Write a paragraph first. Funny, you’re hungry? You’ll need a page before foraging for a snack. You chose something salty? Too bad. No water until you have two pages. Now you want to take a shower? HA! Maybe after 2,000 words. Go to the bathroom only if you feel good about your work.

Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Rachel McCain

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Rachel McCain, a student in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. You can follow Rachel on Twitter @Raqafella—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

rachel_1Fact: I don’t trust computers. I’m always paranoid my laptop is going to crash, disintegrating my work in the process—which has happened before. Several times.

I’ve lost USB flash drives, misplaced them. I forgot a USB in Staples over the summer. Tragic, but a way of life.

As it goes.

So I write everything down in a notebook—or try to. Usually, stories end up on the backs of bills lying around, receipts, in large blank spaces on old assignments. When I’ve written a substantial amount, I’ll type it up—save as I go—and then print it out and edit again. You know, just in case.

Continue Reading

MFAs Do It Best: Your Graduate Degree in the Workforce

Are these workshop participants secretly preparing for the workplace?

Are these workshop participants secretly preparing for the workplace? Photo credit: MadLabUK

When I graduated with my MFA this past May, I got a decent-paying job and the hell away from academia. I’d taught for four semesters and knew I didn’t want to do it anymore. I also knew that I had to get out of New Orleans, where the job market is hollow in the best economies. I had no service industry experience and there really wasn’t much else in the city for me in terms of work.

Fortunately I found a job in Chicago that I thought I wouldn’t hate too much, one that would also give me time to work on writing projects nights and weekends. I’ve been doing it since August with moderate success—and strangely enough, I’ve found that my MFA prepared me well for my new office workplace.

Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Eric McDowell

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Eric McDowell, a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

Eric McDowell photo copyHow did you lose your first tooth? I was at home, in the bathroom, on the toilet. Waiting and bored. I’d been worrying the loose tooth for days. At last it broke free of its gingival tether. I spat it into my hand. And then, I guess, I flushed.

The next day I sat at my desk with the photocopied sheet of paper my teacher had given me—a drawing of big pillowy tooth inside which, on four lines, I was supposed to write the story of what had happened. Hurrying to be done, I printed the words I’d stayed up late the night before memorizing—an alternate version, one that wouldn’t humiliate me when my teacher hung it with the row of other cartoon teeth on the wall above the coat hooks and cubbyholes. Something about my sister pushing me into a door. I reached into my pocket and touched the tatty dollar bill I’d found under my pillow that morning, making sure it hadn’t disappeared with the lie.

I didn’t realize until later—much later—that I had just written my first piece of fiction. Were we to workshop it, I’d be the first to point out that it isn’t much good—unimaginative and vague, to say the least. But hadn’t I wanted it to be unremarkable, to raise no suspicions? The bigger problem was that the story I’d written was bad because it refused to take risks. It was safe, and not much more.

Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Matthew Wimberley

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Matthew Wimberley, an MFA student and Starworks Fellow at New York University. You can follow him on Tumblr at matthewwimberley.tumblr.com—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

Headshot copyMy mother spent three months looking for the door to our new home, after we’d purchased the land, after we’d cleared the tangle of rhododendron and stunted beech trees, and after I’d spent long afternoons in fall sweeping back the downed leaves from the plywood floors or walking down a small stream. She said a door had to represent the house, had to hold us in and at the same time be able to sit perfectly open without any brace.

While the carpenters were nailing the sidewalls, and laying floor tile, my mother was out looking for the perfect door. She found it in late summer, just as the house was nearing a livable state. Night after night the fireflies began to thin through the grass, which was at its highest point in the ravines along our dirt road. There was no streetlight nearby, and so we carried flashlights in my dad’s truck in order to see once the sun set.

Continue Reading