Monday, October 11, 2010

State of the MFA: Year 2.5

After writing the State of the MFA: Year One, Year Two and Year Three, I realized that I'd left out a great deal. I'd left out all the revelatory information that came between the end of one and the beginning of another.

It was in this nebulous 2.5 time frame that I started asking the question (and answering it) Who am I as a writer and what is it that I care about?

For years, I tried quite desperately to write to please other people. As an undergrad I wrote stories like the ones I was assigned to read (all realism). And when someone in workshop said, hey, this sorta reminds me of that Pam Houston story we were assigned I knew I had struck gold. Yes, my writing was quirky and snarky, but it was as much that way because that's how my brain functioned as it was because that's how I knew I could get a laugh from people. Next I wrote to get into the MFA program. They needed to like me and my work to accept me, right? I arrived and the first night of workshop my instructor swiped a hand across the desk and said none of that genre stuff. I wasn't surprised, but I complied. He talked about his great interest in slice of life stories so I, like much of the class, tried to write plotless slice of life stories.

Things kept on like this for a while. I wrote what I wanted in my own free time and wrote what they wanted when I had to show it to them. I was happy (or so I thought) in my knowledge that
what I wrote on my own was important to me and considered worthwhile by other people even if those people were not the ones sitting in class or issuing grades. I thought I would just play the man's game long enough to learn what I needed to. At an AWP panel this past spring I heard a panelist say My goal was always to smuggle out the pretty sentences and take them to Tolkien.

Then it came to a head. I no longer cared to write for other people. I had my This matters TO ME moment.

Someone recently described when she had that same moment some fifteen years ago. Her instructor told her that the story was well written but in the end it was still a story about [dismissive fluff]. She had to work around to it, but she eventually put metaphorical fists on her hips and said, hey, this particular breed of dismissive fluff matters to me.

In my mind, this is the great thing about Year 2.5 of the MFA: you learn to separate out content from style and you realize that you no longer give a damn whether your content is on the approved list of sufficiently weighty topics we can write about.

And once you've had that moment it's hard to go back. Right now I'm working on a story and I'm really sad that it's not as ME as others because it'll be better received if it's less ME and that pisses me off.

Year 2.5 was when I came out of the genre-writer closet, so to speak. In my short profile on the side-bar, you'll see that I love paranormal and urban fantasy novels and I no longer care who knows it. I do love them and I don't care. I used to think that I had to engage only in discussion of aforementioned sufficiently weighty subject matter. Now I honestly admit that I've never given a rat's ass about the boring stuff.

I'm not saying that all MFA students will become genre writers or that we all think the same things are boring. But I do think that it takes a couple of years trying and failing before you realize what's important enough to you that you want to keep trying. To find what it is you'll fight for. If you wouldn't fight whole heartedly in defense of what it is you're doing right now, then why are you doing it? Reasons of learning or pleasing people will only last you so long, and when those reasons expire, you have nothing left except to be yourself.

Highly Recommended