MFA Update: Residency Reflections

Sunsets, snow, and mountains…that’s right, I had another residency, this time in the deep arctic blast. Now I’ve attended two out of four residencies, and while I enjoyed myself immensely and am chomping at the bit to get into my work for the semester (and I already have), it was also a reminder of how fast the time passes. With two residencies down, I have only two more to go. Out of “the bubble,” that space we refer to where we’re in a safe space where all of us value the craft of writing and share pieces of ourselves, here are my reflections as a second-semester MFA student.

Peer Workshops

Something special happened in my peer workshop group–not that it didn’t in June, but I’m not writing about June’s residency right now. Not only did we find a way to help each other with our stories, but we also laughed together. There were only three people in my workshop who I felt I knew–two other women in my cohort and a woman from the class ahead of mine whom I befriended last residency.

There were three other students I didn’t get the chance to get to know last June, and it was fantastic learning about them. One of them kept astonishing me with an openness and personal courage that is nothing short of inspiring. Then, there were two students from the incoming cohort. Both great writers, and great people.

Finally, what made this group so special was the pair of mentors facilitating the twelve hours we spent together. I’m not going to name drop, but they’re pretty amazing and so is their fiction. Their insights, good humor, and approachable manner made it a joy to learn to from them.

Thanks to the feedback I received from both of them and my peers, I have decided to make a drastic change to my thesis novel that will solve the pacing issues; scenes were moving too rapidly and they confirmed for me that as readers, they didn’t have the time to get settled in them. They also confirmed that my proposed changes would solve this issue. I don’t want to get into too much detail because I don’t want to give anything away…but suffice to say instead of covering a 65-year lifespan, my novel will cover about 5-6 months.

Craft & Elective Workshops

In addition to peer workshops, part of the residency curriculum features craft and elective workshops. The craft workshops were fun and helpful. Some of the information was something I’d learned before, but I really enjoyed hearing another writer’s take on a subject and letting lessons sink in again. At other times, the information was new and entirely helpful.

Elective workshops I attended (of which we had to choose two) included discussions on the unreliable narrator, an agent Q&A, and a talk on beginnings by Zia Haider Rahman, who might just be one of the coolest people I’ve had the honor to meet. If I ever had the chance to take more classes from him, I’d jump at the opportunity.

Readings

At each residency, there are several types of readings: nightly faculty readings, nightly student readings, and a special students-only reading on Wednesdays. I won’t say who read what, but there were texts shared that required open hearts to read and listen, and I couldn’t be prouder or more honored to have participated, even as a reader.

For my own readings, I chose a portion of my short story, “Hunger,” and a rap/poem I’d written based on Hamilton: The American Musical. For that one, I got the audience involved, repeating the chorus.

Everything Else

The graduation ceremony for the graduating cohort, the dance party afterwards, the several hours spent in the game room with friends, the night of no water, the visit from the fire department when pipes burst, the tiny snowman we found, the hours chatting with friends and fellow writers, the four hours with my roommate and cohort-mate traveling to and from the hotel, and everything else that goes on residency was so enjoyable that I didn’t want to leave. At least…not until the temps dropped back into the negatives.

My next residency is in five months and two days. I’m so looking forward to jumping back into it, even though it will be my third of four residencies, and I will likely be even more sad to leave.

Writing Goals: 2018

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Happy New Year! Lots of people make resolutions at this time of year; not me. Resolutions are too easy to break. Usually, I go with them for about two weeks and then I skip a day or two–and then it’s over. Instead, I prefer to come up with goals for the year.

I have my own personal goals, but I’m going to share my writing goals, as this is (mostly) a writing blog.

MFA Thesis

As my primary writing endeavor, this will take prime focus. If I write a chapter a week, I can finish a rough draft of my thesis novel by May 27, 2018. That’s my goal.

After residency (which is in less than a week, woohoo!), I’ll be living in New Hampshire for the semester so that I don’t have to drive three hours to campus in potentially inclement weather. I found a sublet situation with a friend from my MFA program, so I’m looking forward to some productive writing sessions.

The good news is this: While I will still be working as a freelancer, I will be able to get by with meeting my required quotas because of student loan disbursements, my tax refund, and the TA stipend.

So I’ve decided I will treat this time like a working writing retreat. It’s a great opportunity to get my rough draft hammered out. I’ll be in New Hampshire through April, which leaves a month to go of drafting when I get home, but I’m confident I’ll be able to keep up with my goal.

Short Stories

I’m still working on my goal of writing one short story each month. I missed last month by a couple of days, but as I was away for a week with family–and it was rather difficult to write over the holiday with much going on–I’m not going to beat myself up over it. I should have December’s short story drafted by the end of today, and out for submission by the end of this week.

This month’s short story is one that’s already written and critiqued; it’s just a matter of addressing its weak points and playing up its strengths before finding it a home by the end of the month.

Writing Contests

I will participate in writing contests this year. Last year, I gave myself a $50 budget for the year; I might bump that up to $100 this year but I haven’t decided.

Either way, I will enter some contests–paid and free–in hopes of getting my writing out there. It’d be cool to place in one of them; I came close a few years ago when I got an honorable mention in the WOW-Women on Writing Flash Fiction contest in winter 2015.

Writing About Writing

I also want to pitch articles about the craft of writing this year. I pitched two last year. The one in November was accepted and I haven’t heard yet about my pitch I sent in December.

These articles can be to magazines, anthologies, or blogs–I’m not picky. Last year I pitched two; this year I want to pitch four articles.

This Blog

Finally, but not least important, is this blog. With school and my TA work, blogging daily just isn’t possible. But I’m aiming for three blog posts per week, with one of those three being a writing prompt.

What are your goals?

I’d love to know what your goals are–writing, reading, or otherwise. Share in the comments for some accountability (not that I’ll hassle you about meeting your goals).

Holiday Break

I’m taking a little break from blogging. I’ll be back after the new year! Enjoy the rest of 2017!

So it begins…

I’m thrilled that residency is less than a month a way. This June to January stretch feels so long. I’ve had a nice one day break between the end of the undergraduate semester (my TA work) and starting working on my peer critiques. I have 150 pages of fiction to critique by Jan. 7.

It’s definitely doable, but more than that, I’m looking forward to the work. Even more than that, I’m looking forward to the actual peer critique sessions. Here’s my process:

  1. Read through a short story just to get the lay of the land.
  2. Read through again, marking what works for me and what doesn’t with check marks or underlined text.
  3. Read through a third time, making in-margin comments.
  4. Write the 1-page letter critique that goes to each author in my group.

First Read-Through

On my first read-through, I’m really just trying to get a feel for characters and the story as a whole. This is the type of read-through that prevents me questioning something only to later find out the answer exists in the story. Reading through without a pen in hand also helps me enjoy the story as a reader. After all, my job as a peer is not to edit the text.

Rather, it’s to provide a reader-response from a fellow fiction writer and MFA candidate.

Second Read-Through

For this step, I pick the pen up for the first time. I don’t write any words but just mark what works and what I feel could be improved. That’s the only purpose of this read through–registering my reactions.

I’ll mark beautifully-turned phrases, awkward word choices, etc…but I lay off grammar/typos. My purpose is not to proofread the story, especially at this stage.

Third Read-Through

This is where I will call attention to any typos or grammatical snafus. But, far more importantly, I’ll write why something works or me or doesn’t. If it doesn’t, I might offer some ideas for how a particular passage can be improved. As I read through, I’m also thinking about my big-picture reactions because that’s what I’m going to highlight in the letter.

Writing the Letter

There are some things I’m required to cover in the letter. I have to provide a one-sentence summary of the story. I have to describe what I liked and why, and offer a suggestion for moving forward that can include anything from trying a new point of view to changing the ending. These letters are a nice way to personally connect with writers in my group, especially if I haven’t met an author.

The letter will also serve as a reminder later. The night before someone’s story is critiqued, I will re-read the letter I wrote for them and glance through the comments I wrote on their story so that everything comes to mind quickly and easily.

Have you ever participated in a peer critique?

Peer critique is my favorite part of residency–and there’s so much to love, from readings to classes, from seeing dear friends to the party at the end of the week. But there’s something so unique and special about critiquing in a group in person. I was both tired and sad when it was over in June and even though it can be anxiety-producing to be critiqued, I’m still looking forward to it.

So here’s my question for you: Have you ever been critiqued in a group setting? Did you like it? Why or why not? Toss your thoughts up in the comments!

MFA Update: Final Feedback of the Semester

Today I received–and gave–my final feedback for my first MFA semester. My mentor wrote such a beautiful letter to me, beginning by acknowledging the work that it took to produce 120 polished pages of fiction in just five months. I specify polished because, as a veteran Wrimo, I could easily produce 120 pages in about two to three weeks…but they certainly wouldn’t be polished. She summed up some of the lessons we discussed–at a macro and micro level–and gave me some advice for moving forward and for editing the two chapters I’d sent her a couple weeks ago. Finally, she advised that I rest now, both from writing this book and from the 17th century–and for the most part, I am. I’ve started drafting chapter seven of my thesis, but only a page or two at a time, at a leisurely pace. I won’t touch these chapters again until next semester or perhaps the semester after that.

Giving my own feedback was a challenge because I realized that some of the advice I’ve received since July is still processing in my mind. Because my mentor advised me on both macro and micro concerns and ideas, there are simply some that take longer to ingrain in my mind. I mentioned, in my feedback, that I keep a running list in my head of all of her tips and suggestions, and run through it as I rework first drafts–and sometimes as I draft. This slows my writing process, but I’m okay with that because I’m churning out stronger material.

In less than two weeks, stories will be sent out for peer critique. I’m going to enjoy looking at my peers’ work because aside from occasionally sharing work among my cohort over the last semester, I’ve not had the chance to read what my fellow learners are producing for their MFA. I enjoyed the critiquing period last spring–even when stories were not of a genre I would usually read. It felt good to step outside my comfort zone, and to work with a text that was not my own. Peer critique is one of those processes that’s at the core of becoming a more effective writer because we tend to learn about our own writing from others strengths and weaknesses.

I’m also anticipating my next residency. Not only am I looking forward to visiting the Mountainview Grand Resort again (which I hear is a little creepier in the winter and I can’t wait!), but I’m eager to see my friends again and to welcome a new cohort into the fold.

MFA Update: Final Submission of the Semester

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Thesis

In just over two weeks, my final submission of the semester is due, and I just deleted what I’d written so far toward my 30 pages of fiction for that submission.

Yesterday, on my 3-hour drive to New Hampshire for my TA responsibilities, I had several chapter epiphanies:

  • The chapter about the Mystic Massacre needs to start right near the end of the event and fill in with carefully crafted flashbacks.
  • I need to flush out a conflict for my protagonist that shows that when the other men he’s working with are together, he becomes more of a bystander and less of a factor in making decisions. I need to go back and strengthen this in earlier chapters because it is at the end of this chapter that he overcomes that, in order to allow him to do what he needs to in the next chapter.
  • I need to emphasize his guilt that his actions in the previous chapter made the massacre more likely.

To accomplish all of this, I had to delete what I’d already written. This leads me to a conclusion I’ve long held but not experienced in a while:

Sometimes writing requires taking two steps forward, and one back.

This is okay. I think a writer ought to be comfortable with the delete key, and not fear it. Why continue to thrust writing on a reader that does not best serve the story? It might be lyrically beautiful, but that’s not enough of a reason to keep it.

So, that leaves me with two weeks to write, edit, and revise about 10,000 words–but I’m excited about the task.

Another major change I’ve made in my thesis is that I had planned, originally, on characterizing real people who lived in the past and influenced the events in my book. The difficulties with this approach proved to be three-fold:

  1. I felt constrained like I couldn’t take a character too far from who they really were. For a fiction writer, it’s important to have the freedom to develop characters.
  2. I wanted to make one such character an antagonist. However, I don’t think that person in history was the way I want to characterize him. This man has hundreds of descendants and I wouldn’t want to alienate them because I made their ancestor out to be a horrible person just to suit my story.
  3. There are many characters on whom I can find very little information. I felt imbalanced completely making them up on my own while other characters had definite timelines and personality traits.

For this reason, I need to rename all of my characters. This is a fun process, albeit time-consuming, as I typically like to do some research and choose names for a reason, instead of just picking them out of a hat. But I’ve already decided what I will rename my protagonist, so it’s a start.

Craft Essays and Exercises

I don’t often blog about the non-thesis work I’ve been submitting all semester. I’m not sure why, but with the semester winding down, this seems as good a time as any to write about these other elements.

The craft essays are both frustrating and satisfying. I always find finishing an academic essay satisfying because it’s like solving a puzzle. I love proving my point through writing, which I know is an unpopular opinion among many. Yet, I enjoy it. Even when I’ve not loved the book I was assigned, I’ve enjoyed writing the essay. I have two more to go. I’ll write one this week, and another next week for a total of 10 this semester.

My mentor assigned me 3 writing exercises this semester, all of which I found both helpful and enjoyable. Some of them involved research, one of them involved going to a place of personal emotion so powerful that it released some of the grief I’ve been working through since the death of my father a little over a year ago. I’m working on expanding that exercise into a short story that I will then submit to literary magazines and hopefully find a home for it. It might just be the most powerful work of fiction I’ve ever written in my life–I’m not trying to boast here, but I’m simply comparing it to previous work I’ve done.

Having completed my 3 exercises for the semester, I have no more to submit, which means my 30 pages can be completely devoted to my thesis.

Teaching

My TA experience is going so well. I’m really enjoying it, and yesterday I met with another professor who has welcomed me to stay at her house one night a week so I can split the drive. Speaking of driving, I was thinking about what tires me out about it. Driving up and back (a total of 5-6 hours depending on traffic, weather, and construction), isn’t what tires me out. It’s doing so as part of a 12- to 13-hour day. I’m on campus each Monday for 6 hours.

Next term, and the following term, I’ll be on campus twice a week, but only for about an hour or two each day. That means my 13-hour day will become two 7- or 8-hour days. This is a huge difference! I’ll have to try it out to see but I think I won’t mind so much driving up and back a couple of times a week. After all, I once had a 1.5-hour commute to a job I didn’t like, and I love being in the classroom.

Besides, those hours on the road give me ample time to think about my fiction, and I’ve made some pretty important decisions on that drive.

Getting back to the classroom, I’ve had some fun opportunities to teach mini-lessons, and plan to teach a few more. I’m starting to get to know the students, which I think would have happened faster were I sitting in on every class instead of every other class, and I’m frequently and overwhelmingly impressed by them. That’s not to say I had low expectations. I didn’t have expectations. I’ve tried to go into this semester with a blank slate approach as to what to expect from students, as this was my first chance to work with college students.

I also love tutoring. There’s nothing quite like working one-on-one with a student and witnessing that a-ha moment. I’ve experienced it before, but I’ll never tire of it. I liken it to a runner’s high.

I’m also really enjoying the TA Colloquium. This is a once-weekly, no-credit class that provides an opportunity to study and discuss pedagogical theories and strategies for the Freshman composition classroom. Some of the readings are challenging–this week’s caused a grammar-related existential crisis based on a 30-year-old debate about the value and approach of teaching grammar in college–but I enjoy them all the same.

The semester is half-over so my work as a TA will continue beyond the MFA semester (it will be the opposite in the spring), and I’ve really enjoyed growing alongside the students in the class I’m observing. The professor I’m working with has gone above and beyond, even finding me that housing arrangement for the rest of the term.

Final Thoughts

There’s been a lot to reflect on today, with the MFA semester drawing down. But I’ll continue my monthly update because just because the semester is ending doesn’t mean the work stops. Here’s what’s coming up between now and my second residency week:

  • Nov. 7 is the final submission deadline for this semester.
  • Nov. 10 is the deadline to submit my work for peer review at residency.
  • Nov. 14 I should receive final feedback from my mentor.
  • Dec. 11 is the day my peers’ stories are released so I can begin preparing my critiques. It’s also the last day of the TA semester and the date my teaching portfolio is due.
  • Jan. 7 is the start of my second residency; the day my peer critiques are due (though I will have them finished before then).

Also during this time, it’s my goal to make at least one round of edits to the thesis work I’ve done. I also hope to finish my work with the short story I want to submit. You can see that even though the MFA grading period will end, the work does not. For me, that’s a good thing. It’s always best not to stop and realize I’m tired until the end.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming…

Update: I have removed this survey from the sidebar as it is two weeks old, but you’re welcome to answer it in this post. I will still take your answers into account.

I was going to do a post about a book, but I feel it’s important to call to your attention a one-question reader survey. If you’d take a moment to answer the survey below or in the sidebar on this blog, I’d truly appreciate your feedback. As I’m building out my platform, I thought rather than blog about what I think you might want to read, I would go ahead and ask. I’ll leave the survey open for a week or so, and continue posting each day on the topics in my editorial calendar until then.

Thank you for your participation!