25 year-old Denis wants to attend the MFA program at Hollins in the fall, but can’t afford to go. Sound familiar? Denis’s solution, though, is new. He decided to do some internet fundraising. He writes on his blog:
Instead of asking people to loan me money for school, I’m now asking them to simply give me money. To that extent, I’ve created a fundraising page on fundable, and if you can spare $10, please pledge towards my goal. Since I can’t get a loan and there is no way my parents can pay my tuition, I’ll have to rely on the kindness of strangers.
You can check out his fundraising site directly here. At time of writing, Denis only had $10 in contributions. Is this because his campaign is brand new (launched 7/13/09) or because there’s a recession on, or because this idea simply isn’t going to work?
There’s also this article, over at Publisher’s Weekly, about writer and blogger Dianna Zandt, who, after signing a deal for her first book that provided no advance, decided to “crowdfund” the money she needed to write over the summer. It helps that her topic is “…writing about the power of social media to shift perceptions and cultural values.” She’s been pretty successful so far, it seems – you can read her thoughts and feedback on the process (plus tips for others who are considering going the the same route) here.
What do you think? Are Denis and Deanna smart to try this approach? Is their initiative laudable? Do their requests for funds seem justified to you? And is this a sign of things to come?
Anyone about thinking about applying for an MFA in the next season (or, for that matter, those about to start a program) would do well to check out a couple of posts over at the Virginia Quarterly Blog about how the current publishing and financial shake-up is affecting university presses and university sponsored literary magazines. VQR editor-in-chief Ted Genoways reports that times are hard. LSU’s Southern Review is under threat of closure, as is Middlebury College’s New England Review, and other venerable titles — The Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Oxford American — might have folded if not for emergency fundraising.
Genoways argues that these literary outlets are essential for academic depth and breadth, as training grounds for future writers and editors, as homes for innovative writing, and, not least, as valuable PR for the institutions that create them. “If not for Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, and The Oxford American,” he writes, “I would never think of Kenyon College or Washington & Lee University or the University of Central Arkansas. The excellence of these publications gives their universities a national profile.”
University sponsored lit mags are also MFA recruitment tools. LSU’s MFA website states: “LSU has an extraordinary English Department, and LSU Press has made important contributions to American poetry and fiction. The MFA program offers opportunities to gain editorial experience by working for our many magazines and publications. The New Delta Review, The Southern Review, and The Corpse . (If you are interested in editorial experience and would like to be considered for an assistantship at a particular review you are advised to make your interest clear in your application letter.)”
And if The Southern Review folds, LSU? Then what?
You can read the original posts here and here.
One of my students sent me a link to this Q & A by Salon advice columnist Cary Tennis. The question comes from a writer who got writer’s block after reading the slush pile at a publishing company. The writer asks:
How do you believe in your own writing? I don’t mean after it’s finished, but while you’re writing it? Is there a way to work with the imaginary reader instead of fighting with him/her?
Tennis takes the opportunity, in his answer, to wax rhapsodic about releasing yourself from your own judgment, and while he has certainly been taken to task for completely failing to answer his readers’ questions in the past, he has something valid to offer here, I think. You have to enjoy the exuberance of his response, at least.
We cannot judge harshly without also living in fear of being judged. And it is that creeping fear of being judged ourselves that can prevent us from writing fluidly and with ease and courage. So I say step out there and be really, really bad if you want. Who cares? Step out there and write the worst prose imaginable! So what? There’s no law. Do it with gusto. Write the worst possible prose. Write poems that are so bad you can smell them. Do it. Look around. Have you been arrested? Have you been fired? Are you being held up to public ridicule? No. It’s safe. It’s safe to write whatever you want. And you never know. Some of the most awful stuff might be the best. You don’t know. You can’t judge your own work or control how others respond to it.
I have to disagree slightly with the last bit, though. It certainly is hard to see your own work with any degree of objectivity, but with enough careful attention to craft I believe you can tell, in general terms, if your writing is hitting the mark or not. You’ll still need some trusted external readers to be sure, but your own responses will be truer and more reliable. That’s been my experience anyway, and it’s something I try and instill in my students. Through workshopping, writing, and reading great work, you are effectively educating your own internal imaginary reader, to phrase it in the letter writer’s own terms. Turning him or her into a useful friend, instead of a foe. There’s nothing more enabling than that. It’s practical and learnable and it works.
Which is not to say that there isn’t room, sometimes, for a more esoteric response. Looking through some other Cary Tennis columns for this blog post, I came across this one, from 2007, in which an MFA student from “a certain rather prestigious MFA program” asks: what am I doing here?
Cary’s response, in which he confesses that he was once an MFA candidate too, is rather brilliant:
“Yo, dude, I think you might have won a Poo-litza!”
This, apparently, is how Junot Diaz received word of his big win.
I used a Junot Diaz story in one of my workshops last week — “Fiesta, 1980” from the story collection Drown. It chronicles the experiences of an adolescent Dominican boy as he navigates his nausea and family life during a trip to a party in the Bronx, with flashbacks that reveal the deeper dynamics behind the up-front action. We spent a lot of time talking about point of view in the workshop. It’s a first person retrospective piece that sometimes brings the reader in close to the 12-year-old protagonist’s experience, and other times privileges the adult narrator. The shift between the two is sometimes smooth, sometimes jarring. Diaz gives us a few lines of the protagonist’s dialogue, only to puncture the illusion of our closeness to the character by throwing in adult words or perceptions. In this way, we are both inside and outside of the protagonist’s mind at the same time. The narrator is effectively treating his younger self as a character. This is a technique called indirect interior monologue — and in the first person, it’s more often employed in memoir and personal essays, when writers often have to recreate some version of their younger selves on the page. See this great essay by David Jauss for more on indirect interior monologue and other techniques of point of view. It’s technical, but worth it.
In the meantime here’s a link to an interview with Diaz, (from which the opening quote of this blog entry is taken) conducted by Meghan O’Rourke, Slate’s culture editor, and Deborah Landau, the director of NYU’s MFA writing program. (Try as I might, I couldn’t embed the damn thing. Anyone with the know-how, please help me!)
O’Rourke looks comfortable on camera. Landau, not so much. But it’s still a good interview, not least because it gives a good feel for how Diaz really thinks and talks. Just how autobiographical is Diaz’s work? That’s something else we discussed in our workshop. The point of view in “Fiesta, 1980” certainly leads us to read it as nonfiction, and “Junot” would seem to have so much in common with his protagonist “Junior” (also the protagonist of his Oscar Wao book?) that it’s not hard to make the imaginative leap and think it’s as much memoir as fiction. But, of course, that’s pure speculation.
It’s interesting that NYU is teaming up with Slate to produce this kind of content: a service to writing students and interested Slate readers alike, and an indication that NYU’s program is at least trying to utilize new media technology as part of its offerings, which is more than can be said for some other MFA programs.
I’m working, working, working today — on deadline for a couple of things, so for now I’ll just cross post to this great interview with Tom Kealey, author of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook and main man behind the MFA blog.
Kealey offers lots of great things in this interview, but one of my favorites is this quote, from Doris Lessing:
Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust your own judgment, learn inner dependence, learn to trust that time will sort the good from the bad.
Which is kinda like learning to identify and trust your own inner instincts, something I posted about a few days ago.
Blogging about MFA programs is one of the stated aims of the Boolah Blog. Why? Because I teach MFA prep classes, through Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and I also offer MFA consultations for aspiring MFA students, and so I try and keep up with news and developments within that world.
It so happens that I have a new MFA prep class starting this evening and so I diligently started searching around on the Interweb, looking for any new resources that might have sprung up since I last checked. In doing so, I came across one of those grad school aggregate sites — you know, some enterprising soul forked out large sums of cash for a sexy url (OK, it’s gradschools.com, but I’m not going to link to it) and then gathered together a bunch of half-assed information so that they can flog advertising to prospective students. And how do I know it’s half-assed? Because this is what they say about MFA programs (messed up punctuation is in the original):
Harry Potter, Gone With the Wind, The Catcher in the Rye, or The Tales & Poetry of Edgar Allen Poe – whatever the choiceof genre, creative writers have indelibly imprinted the human race throughout the ages.
Leaving the tortured syntax aside, great list guys! Harry Potter — a hugely successful series, yes, but not literary masterpieces, and not the high-minded adult fiction that most MFA students aspire to (though there are a few great programs that focus on children’s and YA book writing). Gone with the Wind? Also hugely successful, but the only novel that Mitchell published in her life time. J.D. Salinger? Famous recluse. About the most unlikely writer you’d ever expect to find either in an MFA program or endorsing one. And Poe? Hugely influential, but most of his acclaim came after death. From his Wikipage:
Poe, throughout his attempts at pursuing a successful literary career, would be forced to constantly make humiliating pleas for money and other assistance for the rest of his life.
Ah yes. Sounds like the life of a writer, sure enough, but not the shiny dream that prospective MFA students are pursuing. Is that dream possible? Continue reading