A week or so ago, when I was opining on whether or not an MFA can make you a better writer, I said that, while the manuscript of my novel that I turned in at the end of my humanities MA program was 50% better than what I started with, the one I sent to my agent on Wednesday is 50% better than the one I had in June. I still think this is true. Suzanne asked me to explain where that extra 50% improvement came from, and I’ve been thinking about my answer a lot. Here’s what I came up with.
First, I think it’s important to note that I only turned in the first sixty pages of what was then a 297 page manuscript as my thesis. This is because, while by graduation I did have the entire novel finished, my adviser had only worked with me on these sixty pages, all of which were written by the time I started writing my thesis for credit (third quarter, the middle of March). I still consider these some of the strongest pages in the entire book, but that is mainly because Part One is so…I don’t want to say “different” than the rest of the novel, because that implies some sort of disconnect, but it is the longest section, somewhere in the 130 page range, and it is far more emotional–there’s a lot of back story involved, a lot of set-up, a lot of getting to know the characters, etc. Part One is the section of the book that I am the most proud of. But, like I said, my adviser only worked with me on half of it, so while I think that his input was valuable and really helped make the pages great, do I think I couldn’t have done it without him? No.
I know this because I’m pretty confident that the rest of the manuscript is just as good as those first sixty pages. There’s no way of knowing what the manuscript would look like now if I hadn’t attended the University of Chicago, or, conversely, if I had attended an MFA program instead, where I would probably have worked on the entire manuscript with an adviser over a span of two years instead of six months. I don’t think it could have been much better than it is, because I think that AUT is, in its current incarnation, the strongest writing performance I am capable of at this stage in my artistic development. This does not mean that I think it’s the best book ever written, or even close to that; I think it’s the best thing that I have written to date, which it should be, and that it is the best thing I could have written with my current skill set. I am happy with it. Will further editorial feedback and revision make it better? Probably. But only marginally, in the grand scheme of things. For me to write something that is wildly better than AUT, I have to grow as a writer, and as we all know that takes time and practice and experience.
But–and here I come to my essential point–the number one thing I think profoundly changed the course of my development of AUT is that, somewhere in the writing of it, I figured out what I was trying to say. This isn’t to say that AUT has a moral, or that I’m trying to teach some kind of lesson, but it contains a world view that Version 1 (the version I wrote while I was in college, which will never see the light of day, but which was quite different from the current version other than the main protagonists are the same) completely lacked because I was still too young to understand what my concerns were–I didn’t even have the same concerns then, I don’t think. It took me the entire first draft (the one I finished in June) to understand what it was that I was really trying, subconsciously at first, to say with AUT. What I meant by it. That acknowledgment of purpose, that personal emotional charge that drove my writing while I was finishing Draft 1, turned the plot of AUT into a real story, the characters I created into real people. The theme that emerged tied all the pieces together; discovering that theme was sort of like writing some sort of math proof, working the story and characters over in my head until it all fit, made sense, and finished with some sort of convicted conclusion.
Knowing what I wanted to say made revisions a million times easier, because the “theme” (God, that sounds so English major lit-crit-y, but it’s the word I have in my arsenal so I’m going with it) became a touchstone by which I was able to weigh every other piece of my story. It didn’t feel overly manipulated and calculated because the theme emerged from the story as I told it–it was organic to tale–and by acknowledging it as the center that held everything together, I was able to tighten everything up.
That is the big explanation. There are other components. My writing also improved because, you know, I kept writing. My adviser always told us in class that a first draft is like a block of marble to a sculptor–a first draft is where you start. A blank page is not your block of marble–writing your first draft is like unearthing the marble and dragging it up from the quarry to your studio. And then, like a sculptor, you start chipping away at the stone, carving it until it becomes a sculpture. So that’s what I did. I knew what I wanted the sculpture to look like, and I started chipping away at my prose–literally word by word, deleting an adverb here, taking out a slow-moving passage there–until what I wanted to see emerged. It’s a slow and painstaking process; it takes a lot of attention and care, sort of like growing an orchid. We have an orchid at work named Angela Lansbury, and every day two of my coworkers mist the flower and water the roots and check the soil for any rot or signs of sickness. It often occurs to me, watching them do this, how close that is to how a writer cultivates a piece.
I also read. Read read read read read–like a maniac. I read seventy-one books last year, in a lot of different genres, by a plethora of authors at a variety of levels of acclaim and talent. Lots of people read more than that in a year, but that’s what I could squeeze in between school and work and writing and a social life. I look at every book as not only an entertainment, but a lesson–how to, or not to, write; how people see the world; how people write about what they see. This may be why I try not to give up on any book no matter how much I hate it–I feel like it has something to teach me, and I have to see it through to the end to get as much as I can out of it.
And, of course, the truth is that since June I’ve had outside input. I gave the first draft to my sixteen-year-old sister and cousin to read, and they gave me some great feedback because they are smart, opinionated young women. My friend Cambria read a draft, too, and gave me feedback. And, of course, my lovely agent Joanna gave me a ten-page editorial letter with things to think about when revising, and I think I hit about 95% of that (I hope I got all of it, but one can never know–also, what’s with me and percentages?).
All of these factors combined make up that 50% improvement from June that I talked about in the MFA post, but I do really think that the single biggest contributor to a better draft of AUT came from the direction provided by figuring out what my emotional investment in the project was and seeing how that had shaped the intent of the novel, then going back and pruning AUT along the spine provided by the theme–or maybe a better way to put that is “primary concern”–of the novel.
So. I hope this was helpful. I really don’t think I’m in the best place to be handing out writing advice, since I’m not published or whatever, but I get really excited when I figure out what works for me that I’m like, well, why not share it? I don’t encourage anybody to take any of this as Gospel–I’m just adding my voice to the choir, but there are plenty of other places to go for sounder advice than mine. I hope I’m not bugging anybody by acting like I know what the hell I’m talking about–all of what I say here is with regards to what works for me, and my book, only and I cannot claim that it is any better or worse than any other writing advice out there in the ether, or that it’ll work for other people besides me. I just wanted to give that little disclaimer.
(But I can pretty much guarantee that if you write a lot and read a lot you’ll become a better writer. And a better reader, which is nothing to sneeze at. I’m pretty sure that this has been scientifically proven.)
(Note: Is it “an” MFA program or “a” MFA program? Verbally, I would say “an” because of the pronunciation of the letter “M” as “em”, which starts with a vowel, but “M” is actually not a vowel, so it should probably technically be “a” MFA program. Thoughts?)
Today at Paper Cuts, there was an item about MFA programs, whether they’re rankable and how one would go about doing that and bracketing them like March Madness and stuff. Basically, the rankings are determined by the perception of the program’s prestige by other MFA programs, which…actually tells you almost nothing. What would be an actual indicator is if you could quantify “best” by pointing to how many successful writers have been churned out by a certain program. Well, apparently the math on such a venture is sort of fuzzy, and completely indeterminate! Like you’re surprised. Because “successful” is defined by Paper Cuts, a New York Times blog, as “having hit the New York Times bestseller list”, which is not really the sort of success most MFA graduates display. As far as I know, no MFA program claims to turn you into the next Nora Roberts or John Grisham…they want to discover raw talent and then turn that person into the next Hemingway or Flannery O’Connor. But literary writers don’t make the Times bestseller list very often. Probably the best way to do this would be to investigate how many graduates of MFA programs win major prizes and awards (Nobel, Pushcart, Pultizer, Story, Orange, NBA, Printz, etc.) and how many are regularly published by prestigious magazines.
But here’s the important question: can an MFA program make you a better writer?
Short answer: I don’t think so. Or at least I don’t think an (“a”? ARGH!) MFA program can make you a better writer any more than, say, WRITING can.
Long answer: I didn’t attend an (whatevs, I’m owning it) MFA program, but I did get a MA that allowed me to take creative writing classes and write a creative thesis, which ended up being about the first 60 pgs. or so of AUT. I had been working on Draft 2 of AUT for about a year and a half before I took my first fiction writing class at the University of Chicago and what I handed in as my first workshop piece (the first chapter of AUT, more or less) is so different from what is now the opening chapter–and it’s the same scene, just COMPLETELY rewritten. Needless to say, the input of my instructor (who became my thesis adviser) helped enormously. Nic was very encouraging of the project, but he held my writing to a higher standard than I did and taught me to refine it, not to mention pushed me to make difficult but essential changes that helped mold the novel. The version of AUT I turned in at the end of the year was AT LEAST 50% better than the version I started with in January, but, and I think this is important, the version of AUT I’m going to send to Joanna next week is AT LEAST 50% better than the version I turned in for my thesis.
Workshopping, at least in my opinion, is worthless unless you trust and respect the participants, which is, in my experience, wholly impossible in a university environment. There were maybe two or three students in each of my writing classes last year that gave me consistently good, helpful feedback in a constructive way, and two of these people were friends of mine already. The one person who really made a difference that year was my adviser, and to a different extent my preceptor (sort of a camp counselor, but for mind-bending philosophy courses and soul-crushing theses), Jon. And the best thing Nic did for me was tell me I had some talent and a pretty good idea and all the tools, so stop being lazy and get to work. Sometimes, you need to hear shit like that. But if you can’t find an adviser that you’re compatible with, or who gets your work, or who you can learn from, AND the workshops are worthless (they almost always are, I’m fairly adamant about this), well then you’ll get virtually nothing out of an MFA program.
People like them because they give you the opportunity to focus on your writing without being bogged down in such mundanities as, you know, having a day job, but if you need two years of school to write well then you have big problems. Because let’s say you produce something good and sellable (not a guarantee) in those two years, you probably won’t be able to live completely off your writing and you’ll have to get a day job to support yourself/your family and then what will you do? You’ve never done that before, how can you cope, how can you live a normal life and write? By enrolling in an MFA, you’re just delaying the inevitable in this regard.
The other thing is that MFA programs are not meant to teach you anything that you can apply outside the publishing industry. They don’t set you up with a failsafe career, like law school or, to an extent, MBA programs or Ph.D. programs. I don’t regret my MA program for a couple of reasons: 1.) I didn’t pay for it, my parents did, which is an incredibly gross UMCW thing to say, but it’s true, 2.) it wasn’t an MFA program, so I took plenty of non-writing classes, many of which have enriched my writing and expanded my literary horizons with regards to what I read and how I read it, and 3.) I was able to get a university-subsidized internship at a literary agency, where I learned A LOT about the industry and got hooked up with my current job in New York. But getting your master’s in anything without having to in order to qualify for a job (an MFA certainly falls into that category, as does my MA) is a real risk and you need to square with spending $50,000-$150,000 that you may never be able to recoup.
I guess whether or not an MFA program is worth it depends on what you think you need to learn, whether or not you learn it, and how much good work you come out of the program with. But a lot of times what happens (at least, in my estimation; see any volume of Best New American Voices for an example of this) is MFA students all end up emerging from a program in any given year with pretty similar work. All good stories, but stylistically sort of “meh.” I once read a volume of Best New American Voices (I think it was 2006) where, I kid you not, all but one of the stories was in the first person and they were not very different from each other. In essence, what I mean to point out here is that MFA programs can actually hurt you by making you, though perhaps technically a better writer, also just exactly like everybody else. And creativity and individuality are the cornerstones of good writers (and good books). So…I personally thing you can get a similar sort of education just from reading and writing your little heart out, but some people think it’s important to have a mentor, some kind of published writer to “teach them the craft” or something. I can’t argue with that thinking–having a “real” writer who you respect and admire have a vested interest in your writing can be freeing, but it can also be terrifying if all you want to do is impress that writer.
You don’t need an MFA to be published. You certainly don’t need one to be a good writer. All you need to be a good writer is patience, tenacity, and a library card. Okay, and probs access to a computer.