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.

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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!

Removing Adjectives and Adverbs

One of my greatest takeaways on a micro level from my MA fiction coursework is that adverbs should be avoided as much as possible. The reason for this is that they tell instead of show. If I say, “Susie ran quickly,” isn’t it better to say, “Susie sprinted,” and show the reader with a stronger verb?

(The answer is yes.)

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So, I tried to write without adverbs whenever I could, with one exception–in speech. I don’t know about you personally, but I, and most people I’ve observed fall back on laziness in speech. I use “very” and other adverbs, because I’m trying to get a thought across fast enough to keep up with conversation, and sometimes the more powerful word doesn’t jump off of my tongue.

But in writing, there is plenty of time to draft, unless you’re participating in a writing challenge like NaNoWriMo, which I no longer participate in (but that’s a topic for another day), or unless somehow you don’t plan for deadlines and have to rush to get work done. In that case, stop reading this post and go organize your work so you don’t find yourself in that precarious situation.

Then, after drafting, there’s plenty of time to edit and revise. There’s time to go back through and think of the more powerful words to replace those lazy substitutions our brains make when we’re just trying to get ideas onto paper or screen before it flits out of our heads again.

And that, my friend, is what I want to talk about today.

My experiment started with my mentor’s feedback.

Months ago–wow, has it really been that long?–I received my first round of feedback from my mentor. I was ecstatic that she approved my thesis topic–the themes that drive the novel I’m working on for my MFA. I was less enthralled to discover I’d fallen into the trap of using adverbs in my narrative.

How did that happen?

After forcing myself to break that habit two years ago, how did I fall back into it? Simple. I was focused on other elements and let my guard down. Like an infection, adverbs infiltrated my prose and took it over, with the help of their slightly less harmful cousins, adjectives.

Wait, what’s wrong with adjectives?

Nothing really, except for when there are too many of them. My mentor commented that the text felt bogged down by them. She understood I was worldbuilding, but by focusing on that one element, I’d unwittingly abandoned character development and plot. They were there of course, so perhaps I didn’t really abandon them, but they had taken a back seat to shaping the 17th-century world.

My mentor said many of my descriptions were beautiful, but that’s not enough.

My first reaction was to wonder if I’d gotten in over my head. So I put down her email, which I had printed as though that would change the words, and went to sleep. The next morning, I woke knowing that I wasn’t in over my head, but that I had to take a drastic step to undo the laziness to which I’d allowed myself to succumb.

The Delete Key

I deleted every single adjective and every single adverb from my work. What happened next was eye-opening. Suddenly, I had space to explore my character. I had space to draw out the plot points and make them exciting.

And the worldbuilding? Don’t worry. It’s not gone–but it’s woven in more subtlety.

I remember years ago when I was working on a historical fiction piece, one of my beta readers told me she stopped reading because she didn’t know what a “davit” was. I always kept that memory with me, but now, thinking back on it, I decided a few things:

  • She didn’t need to know in that instant what a davit is.
  • She could have looked up the term instead of expecting me to stop my plot to explain every detail in the moment.
  • I shouldn’t have felt compelled to compose an encyclopedic dump on whaling vessels and their parts.

Instead, what I ended up doing, was writing from the point of view of a character who had never worked on a whaling ship before. Just because I knew the parts were called davits didn’t mean anyone else had to at that time. Instead, I described the parts by their function–they’re wooden arms built off of the side of the ship with pulleys. They’re used to raise and lower whaling boats, among other things.

Do you need to know they’re called davits? No. I was being pedantic and a little lazy, and my reader was being lazy, too–perhaps because I had been.

A time and a place…

Just as I said there was a time and place for adverbs (only in dialogue or internal thoughts), there is a time and place for an adjective. They can be used, but only when they add to the value of the narrative, and never when they detract from it.

I spoke with my mentor on the phone recently and tried to get a definitive answer from her but she reminded me that answering that would mean telling me what my style should be.

I’m still feeling that out–exactly how often I should let myself include adjectives. But I know this: When I don’t include them, my writing is more active and more exciting. When I do include them, it’s prettier, but it slows everything to a crawl. For now, I’m using pacing as my guide, and in the meantime, I’m enjoying writing my character’s thoughts and feelings in addition to his actions.

MFA Update: First Semester is almost over!

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It’s so hard to believe that my first semester is more than 3/4 over. I sent my third submission a week and two days ago, which means I should receive my mentor’s feedback in about five days. She’s been great about getting her comments to me within two weeks.

For my last submission of the semester…

I’d really like to submit revised chapters for this next deadline, if only because I’d love to have a few rounds of revision before submitting them for the winter residency peer critique. There’s not enough time to get her feedback on them between submitting them and the deadline for the critique pages unless I send my last submission in about a week and a half. I’ve already done some editing, so that might be possible.

On the other hand, another part of me wants to press forward. I know my mentor is a proponent of doing so as well. A good compromise might be to send her new material and submit my edited material for the residency workshop.

That would be the equivalent of working on two submissions at the same time, but I think I might be able to handle it.

I taught a lesson on comma splices…

And it went really well! I’m really enjoying my role as a TA. I worked with the professor, who is one of the department coordinators, to create a 15- to 20-minute lesson on comma splices. Despite the fact that grammar doesn’t really excite the students, most of them participated willingly, though in reflection if I taught the lesson again, I might gamify it a bit and offer candy rewards.

I’m not above bribing students to participate when:

  • It’s raining out,
  • It’s the middle of the afternoon,
  • It’s on a holiday that, until that year, students would have had off from school, or,
  • It’s grammar.

Again, I like grammar. But that’s not the case for everyone, and I understand that.

I may have filled my tutoring quota…

Just kidding. I was joking with a friend who tutored last semester because all semester long she only met with six students, and there I sat yesterday with no students. I’d already met with six since the beginning of the semester.

I wish the tutoring was by appointment, but I understand why the learning center offers walk-in tutoring. I forgot to bring my Kindle with me yesterday, and yes, I was in a library. I could have grabbed a book, but I didn’t want to leave my post just so I’d have something to read.

With my luck, that would have been when a student walked in looking for a writing tutor.

The six students I’ve tutored this semester have all been great to work with, and I’ve learned a lot from them as I hope they have from me.

I may be dead tired today, but…

That doesn’t mean I’m not writing in my head. I am. I’m staring down this last submission of the semester and trying to narrow down the three mentors I will put on my list for next term. I drove up and back yesterday. It wipes me out, but I’ve decided to hold off on looking for an apartment for now because I can’t do that, work two jobs, fulfill my TA duties, and get all my schoolwork done.

Something had to give. Bye, apartment (for now)!

MFA Update: TA-ing

I love being a teaching assistant.

Since my last update, I’ve started my work as a teaching assistant. I’m really enjoying it so far! I’ve observed class for two weeks now (though I am only there one day a week and the class meets two days each week), I’ve tutored two students, and I am really enjoying my TA colloquium class.

Having taken a seminar in teaching writing for my MA, I feel as though I have the foundation and vocabulary for diving in and assessing different pedagogical strategies with my fellow TA and the coordinator of the department who is running the course.

In class, I’m enjoying listening to the students discuss readings as a class and in small groups. I can tell from their responses that they work hard to develop a clear understanding of the texts they’re reading. Right now, they’re working on memoir essays. Today they have a workshop that I wish I could attend, because I like memoir essays. They’re fascinating and employ a number of creative elements that are also required by fiction.

I had the opportunity to talk to one of the students during my tutoring hour, and was more than impressed with the work already put into this assignment.

I ended up changing my tutoring hour; originally it was in the middle of the day, but I was one of five tutors in that time slot for writing, which I thought was overkill. Now I’m tutoring in the late afternoon, and I’m the only writing tutor at that time so there’s a stronger chance I’ll get to meet with students.

That is, after all, why I’m there.

There are other tutors in that time slot, but all for math. Listening to them work with their students, I can say with certainty that I would have made a poor math teacher. Writing is a great fit, as I knew it would be. I’m passionate about teaching and want every student I work with to leave having learned something new.

I’m looking forward to teaching a class, but I know that won’t be for a little while. I don’t mind that, especially as I still haven’t moved closer to school.

I was planning to stay overnight at a hotel, and thought I found a good deal…but I stayed there one night and the place left me feeling like I needed seven showers. So now, I’m back to driving up and back in one day. I know there are friends I can stay with if I get too tired or need to do something on campus the next day, and that’s a good option.

But I’m going to move up there. True, I only have to be on campus one or two days a week throughout my TA program, but if I live closer, I can observe more classes. The more teaching styles I can expose myself to, the better.

For the next couple of months, I will be working like a dog to bank some extra cash for the move.

What’s in a name?

What we call ourselves–and others–is important. We begin identifying others early. Infants learn that their caregivers provide them with food and comfort, and learn their names. At around seven months old, many babies start to get nervous around strangers. They can’t identify them. Later, babies learn to self-identify. This usually coincides with them deciding the baby in the mirror is them, not another.

We don’t lose the sense that names carry meaning as we grow up.

When I was a kid, I was a bit out-toed. This means I walked with my toes pointing out. I used to tell my classmates this was because I took ballet, which of course it’s not. It has more to do with the structure and positioning of the leg bones. It didn’t stop one child from nicknaming me “Ducky.” Unfortunately for me, the name stuck from second grade through eighth, even though I stopped walking that way by fifth grade, with the encouragement of my Nana.

I hated the nickname “Ducky.” When I was in the fourth grade, there were only a small handful of students who didn’t call me that, and perhaps only one or two who were still friendly to me.

But this post isn’t about bullying–which is awful. It’s about the power of a name. The power of what we call ourselves and what we call others.

Around the same time–so we’re talking early 1990s here–teachers didn’t say things like “Sit criss-cross, apple sauce.” They told us to sit “Indian Style.” I didn’t know at that age that this was improper. And no–they didn’t mean for us to sit like people from the nation of India. (I’m sure people all over the world sit with their legs crossed when they sit on the floor or ground; it’s comfortable. I’m not attempting to assert that this style of sitting is only for certain groups or chosen by all groups.) Back then, people in my area commonly referred to the people now known as First Nations People as “Indians.”

Considering the term had been introduced in the late fifteenth century, it certainly had staying power. It had other power, too.

By forcing a name on a group of people as diverse as the many tribes and nations that they belonged to, we were continuing to assert our privilege…and as children, we didn’t even know it.

In researching, planning, and writing my book for my MFA, I think a lot about the term “Indians” a lot, particularly as my book takes place in the 1600s. Every time I write the word now I think in my head, “First Nations People” because without doing that, I think I’d feel a little sick.

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These last few days, I got to thinking about the people we refer to when we say “alt-right.” Thought of as beyond far-right, these people typically fall into groups like neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other white supremacist groups. We need to stop using this term.

For one thing, it was coined by Richard Spencer. If you don’t know who he is, look him up. Educate yourself.

For another thing, we need to call these groups what they are, because the term “alt-right” or “alternative right” makes words like “Nazis” seem everyday. We need to call them Nazis. We need to call them the KKK. We need to call them white supremacists, anti-semites, racists…we need to identify them by their ideology because it’s so hate-filled.

It’s scary to do that, I’ll admit. Who wants to even think the sentence “Nazis and their white-supremacist buddies carried torches through Charlottesville, chanting ‘Blood and soil’ this weekend.”

I don’t like that sentence one bit, but it’s the truth.

Let’s be more like Hermione when she says, “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.” Make no mistake that the Nazis, KKK, and other white-supremacist groups and individuals are trying to make us fear them. They weren’t carrying torches because they ran out of D-batteries for their flashlights. Of course, tiki torches don’t exactly strike as frightening an image as actual torches, but it’s clear what they were going for.

So what was Trump trying to do when he mentioned the “alt-left” carrying clubs? First of all, there is no alt-left. It doesn’t exist. Second of all, yes, some had clubs. But what Trump was trying to do here was equate the counter-protestors to the Nazis, KKK, and other white supremacists.

Look, violence is never good. Never. But if someone feels they need a club in order to preserve their own life, who am I to say they don’t when the supremacists bring guns to the city with them?

The difference–the crucial difference–between the white supremacists and those who oppose them is that one group is fighting to protect democracy and promote equal rights, and the other group is fighting to oppress. To use the evilest tactics imaginable and unimaginable.

Trump hoped that by calling them “alt-left,” he could place the counter-protestors in Charlottesville on the same moral level as the white supremacists. He failed, as evidenced by the responses of pretty much everyone around him except for Duke, the former KKK grand wizard.

Call people by what they are. We say First Nations People now instead of “Indians.” We need to say Nazis, KKK, white supremacists, et al instead of “alt-right.”

(Another disclaimer: I am in no way equating First Nations People with white supremacists. That would be ridiculous. I only mention them together because I am relating current events to my own writing process.)

Call people what they are, whether to be respectful or to decrease fear of them.

But don’t get me wrong. We should fear Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists…but we cannot let that fear drive us into submission. To quote Hamilton, “Rise up!” We need to write back to fight back. We need to call people out when they do and say racist things. We need to remember that we let things get to the point where nazis marched through a US city.

We need to remember that ultimately, when off the teleprompter, the president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, sympathized with white supremacists. We need to remember that he said there were two sides to our country.

We need to remember to be on the right side. The side of love. The side that won’t succumb to fear and hatred.

Let’s extinguish their tiki torches and re-ignite Lady Liberty’s.