Life after the MFA

It may only be the second week in November, but this semester is nearly over. The Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch is officially full and we send our files off to the printer a week from tomorrow. I’ve got a big chunk of my thesis together and more I know will be going into it soon. I’m also on the third round of edits for the cover letter and project proposal I’m writing for the fellowship I’m applying to.

Overall, things are falling together.

I’ve been hearing more and more about “life after the MFA.” As in, what the heck do you do? James Allen Hall, who I had the pleasure of having breakfast with when he was in Memphis for The Pinch’s Fall 2011 release party, told me it normally takes some people 10 years to publish a book after they graduate and it may or may not be anything close to what they wrote for their thesis. It took him 8 years and everything in his book (Now You’re the Enemy) was new (as in, new after his MFA thesis). Mary Molinary, a graduate from the University of Memphis MFA program, took 9 years. Her manuscript won the 2010 Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse award and is now forthcoming in Spring 2012.

Many recent graduates I know are teaching at the college level. Others are teaching at the K-12 level. Some are getting new degrees in new fields. One amazingly lucky person has already had her book accepted for publication.

Many people have told me that after they graduated, they just stopped writing for a year. All that productivity and trucking along for so long and then a dead stop once they graduated.

Right now, I’m applying for a writing/teaching/editing fellowship. These kinds of things are highly competitive, and I’ve already put a great deal of work into my application.

The thing I’m trying to keep in mind at the moment is that 10 years may seem like a long time, but it’s about dedication. This business is not easy. Publications, jobs, acceptances, etc. are not easy to come by. It’s all about the work, about the writing, about the editing, about the sending out, and you have to really love writing to put up with all that work.

Ten years, in a way, is pretty comforting. I don’t have to exit my MFA program and immediately get published and successful and be a star at AWP. I can get the chance to settle out, see what I really want to do, and just keep chipping away at what I really want.

Keep the love alive, folks.

The MFA

There’s a lot of differing opinions when it comes to whether a writer should get a MFA. In a recent interview I did with Marge Piercy that will be coming out in the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch, she says writers need to have life experiences in order to be better writers. We need to work on oil rigs, be fire fighters, doctors, travel the globe. Writers in academia have little time to explore the world, thus they must draw off of other writing to be inspired, and/or they are forced to “publish or perish.”

I applied to a MFA program because I wanted the time and space to work on my poetry. I was writing, but at my best, not very frequently. I didn’t know what I should be reading to help my work improve. I had submitted to literary journals before, but always stopped right after the first rejections rolled in. I had the idea that maybe my work needed something, and a program seemed like the way to go.

Today, half into my second to last semester, I’m so grateful I went to one, and especially the one at the University of Memphis. My first semester, I was shell-shocked around writers. At my first Southern Festival of Books, I was too much of a chicken to stand in line to get my book signed by a poet I heard read. They were who I wanted to be, yet I couldn’t even talk to them. Same thing at AWP. Went to a bunch of amazing sessions, talked to no one but the people in my group. I went to a session where Nicky Beer, James Allen Hall, and two other poets talked about how they organized their manuscript. I had really enjoyed the session and ended up buying Nicky Beer’s and James Allen Hall’s first books. Again, too much of a chicken to talk to them.

Through working with The Pinch, I had the opportunity to solicit Nicky Beer and James Allen Hall. Nicky Beer didn’t have work she could send me, but when it came time to pick a poetry judge for The Pinch’s annual contest, I was able to ask her, and she accepted. I solicited James Allen Hall as well and he submitted work. We published one of his poems in the Fall 2011 issue.

Over this past weekend, The Pinch celebrated the release of the Fall 2011 issue with a party. Six contributors came, which is an amazing turn-0ut (Chris Gavaler, James Allen Hall, Angie Macri, Alex Stein, Jannell McConnell, and Glenn Shaheen). I also was able to go to breakfast with James Allen Hall and drive him home after the party.

Networking is an important aspect in this business, and it’s one I hated the most when I came to a MFA program. I didn’t want to have to talk to people, let alone for a long enough time to be “friendly” with them at other places. It’s taken me over 2 years to get over that. At the Southern Festival of Books, I was able to comfortably talk with Darren Jackson, the editor from Grist (I bought his book, had him sign it, talked to him–not a big deal, but in the past, my God), Bobbie Ann Mason, William Pitt Root, and others. Then, at the release party this past weekend, I had a really wonderful time talking to James Allen Hall about his work and what he did to get where he is since I so admire him.

For me, experiencing the world and writing on my own would not have made me a better writer. I needed structure. I needed space. I needed someone to guide me, make suggestions. John Bensko is an amazing professor. I’ve learned so much from him over the past couple years, and I greatly respect him. Some people have made the assertion that once you join an MFA program, your writing will be too dependent on workshopping. That has not been the case for me. The longer I’ve been in school, the better I’ve been at editing my own work, and every piece I write does need time, and sometimes, I just need to let it have that. I have a lot of confidence in my own ability to edit today.

I also really needed to work on something like a literary journal. It taught me the business aspect of writing, got me to solicit writers I wanted to talk to, got me in an “in” in situations where I wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking to someone before (“Hey, I’m _______ for The Pinch.”), got me reading submissions and seeing what we looked for to get a sense of what other journals were probably looking for as well.

Not all people might need to attend an MFA program, but for me, it has been invaluable. From the outside, the writing world seems big and frightening. From the inside, it’s rather small, and that’s why those relationships and how to manage those relationships are so important.

Did you get a MFA? Why or why not?

Drafting: Trying a new way: “The Family of Twins”

I’m a fan of Sandy Longhorn’s poetry blog. She does a great job at writing about writing, which is a hefty task.

She does an interesting drafting technique that I thought I would try: “Read and collect words haphazardly…  Read and collect lines that hint at titles that might work… Let the title and the word bank coalesce into the beginning of a draft.”

I started reading through randomly picked poems from James Allen Hall’s Now You’re the Enemy (who will also be attending The Pinch’s Fall Release Party on November 5th! I’m SUPER excited!). Words were really not jumping out at me (not that he doesn’t use them beautifully), so I instead focused on the emotion behind some of the poems. Many of his poems have a real rage behind them, and I found myself thinking of the line, “We want sons, but have girls.”

I started imagining this man and woman who don’t want girls for some reason, some big reason, yet have them. The mother is furious and bitter, which at first comes across unsympathetic. I think poetry (and writing in general) needs to push for characters that have more than one emotion, to strike at the vulnerable core we can all relate to. So, I needed to figure out the why. What would be so bad about having girl children?

From there, I started thinking about fables and imagined one involving twins: this mother and father both are twins themselves (not with each other) and know that they will have twins. I then moved to the reason why the mother might not want girls: because something happened to her and her twin, maybe something physical, maybe something like a curse. I’m leaning toward leaving that open, to just having the mother watch her twin sister’s deterioration and know that that will one day happen to her own twin girls. This draft is still being fleshed out, but I love the fantasy of it, the fun of creating characters who have strong emotions.

I did write another poem from the perspective of a slightly off mother that was published in The Meadow in Spring 2011:

“Gathering an Appetite”

I bring a fork, a knife, and a spoon to bed with me.
I might awake to labor pains,
to my body’s desire to turn itself inside out.
Pregnant again, belly curved like a cow’s ass,
Tommy promises he’ll leave if this one is another dud.

After Montgomery came out with dwarfed arms,
Tommy never forgave me.
It’s your fucking womb; It’s just as cursed as you are.
His son would never handle a tractor,
never work outside a horse stall.

I once saw a mother corn snake, threatened,
swallow its young. They were weak.
If the fetus that stirs inside me like an unsettling brew
comes out with any deformity,
I’ll eat it to protect it from itself.

 

Here, the speaker desires the death of her own child, but out of a misguided sense of saving it. Here, too, is the brutal sense of the fairy tale, eating the child that stirs in her like a witch’s potion. I find myself so attracted to speakers who either want or don’t want something passionately.

Where do you find your inspiration? What characters/narrative arcs/emotions, etc. do you keep writing over and over?