Hey all! I am, of course, back from my final VCFA residency, a shiny new MFA in hand. It’s fun to look back on the incredible, enriching, life-changing journey this has been and take a moment to talk about what I’ve learned. First, let me quantify it for you: two years of learning, what exactly did it add up to?
Two years equaled:
– surviving five residencies
– attending/or listening to up to 50 faculty and graduate lectures
– completing twenty packets of one-on-one work with an advisor
These packets included:
– more than a dozen critical essays
– a 38-page critical thesis
– a 45-minute graduate lecture
– a total of 200 books read, analyzed and annotated.
And then of course, came the meat of it all, the creative pages. It would be impossible to try and figure out an exact figure at this point. But I’d estimate I have revised and generated a total of more than 600 pages of creative work through it all. Plus, “side writing,” “free writing” and exercises the length of which I couldn’t even begin to guess. There were so many!
Add to that a scattering of poetry, several new short stories, attempts to bring back to life two other novels, and three starts of shiny new stories in genres I had never tried before.
So, what have I learned through all this?
Allow me to present my list: the craft, the personal, the philosophical, all of it, broken into two (or more) parts. Of course, as always, I hope that my discoveries will be helpful to you.
This is Part 1:
1. Inhabiting Characters
In order to write authentic characters, I have discovered that I must inhabit them. I think this was truly the biggest lesson I’ve learned, and one I got plenty of opportunities to practice. If you have been faithfully reading my blog over the last two years, this might no longer be a revelation to you either — that even though characters are our creations, they cannot be our puppets. We cannot move them across our fictional landscapes as though they were made of wood or tied to a string, just for the sake of plot convenience.
I mean, sure, I guess we can, right? But if we do, we shouldn’t be surprised with the results: characters who seem lifeless or characters who simply shut down and turn away from us. What I’ve discovered is that writing has so much in common with acting. Think method acting. Let your characters breathe on the page, let your characters react, act, say things only they possibly could! Let your characters’ words and actions surprise you.
Be your characters. Walk across the page in your characters’ shoes.
2. The Other Arts
This last residency confirmed another wonderful discovery, how much the arts cross-pollinate one another. Looking at the graduate lectures presented by our class alone, we had four other arts represented. One of my classmates, Lianna McSwain, talked about using Improv Theater techniques to make writing more spontaneous, to loosen up, to be braver. Another classmate, David Rogers, shared a presentation on how some of the top names in YA literature, from K.L. Going to A.S. King to M.T. Anderson rely on music to fuel their stories. Melanie Briend, who is a professional dancer and choreographer, shared a talk on authentic and expressive body language in dance and in writing. And then, in my own lecture, I talked about my experience last semester in painting the truth of my main character. My point? When the well is running dry, and even when it isn’t, turn to the other arts. Writing can feel so cerebral at times, while so many other arts are richly physical. Every art can inform our writing work in the freshest, most marvelous of ways. Allow yourself to be surprised by it. For more on other arts and creativity, read Eric Maisel and Twyla Tharp.
5. The Glory of Making Mistakes
Creating is really all about facing our fears. We know this.
One of my classmates posted this chart during our first semester, and it’s still hanging in my office and inspiring me every day: How to Be an Artist. This sketch is attributed to a British artist Kate Holden.
In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler talks about the fear that prevents us from creating our best work. He invites the writer to defeat perfectionism by shutting down the conscious mind and getting into the flow state. Meditating, free writing and other arts are some of the ways I’ve tried over the last few years to circumvent and fool my inner perfectionist.
For my graduating residency workshop, I wrote 20 pretty rough pages, to share with two advisors and eleven other writers. I had no choice. The deadline was looming, and my final packet had to be submitted at right around the same time. Yikes! Boy was I terrified. I wondered, what would my fellow writers think of me? When during residency, it came time to discuss my submission, it turned out to be a real thrill. Sure, there were plenty of rough patches in those pages. But my fellow workshop participants also pointed out plenty of gems that seemed to delight them! If I had more time and allowed myself to try and make these pages more “perfect,” it is possible I wouldn’t have come up with the quirky, crazy details that surprised even me!
4. Paying Close Attention
But there is another side to the “letting go” coin. (So often two contradictory things are true, I have found.) At one point, I’ve learned, a writer needs to realize that sloppiness is deadly to a good story. Especially when revising, I have learned that it’s crucial to pay attention to the following on every page:
– cause and effect
I am sure I have mentioned this before. Now it’s time for me to say it again: read your work out loud! And not mumbling, either, read it loudly, really let your voice carry and resonate! During every one of my last four semesters, reading my pages out loud really helped me pick up on a lot of logic lapses and language inconsistencies. There is something about the sound of a sentence that just won’t lie. Yes, I know, it’s time-consuming! So often it feels like an extra step. I have learned to do it anyway. It’s been invaluable.
In good writing, things have to make sense on every level, from sentence to physical setting, to plot. As I wrote and revised, I learned to ask myself such questions as, why would he do this? Why would he do this now? What caused this story event? What’s it leading to? I’ve become more aware of geography in my writing. Things like, where is everyone situated in relation to one another? Can I truly visualize the whole thing? If I can’t, then how can I expect the reader to do it?
A related discovery: the use of maps need not be limited to science fiction or high fantasy. By all means, map out your kingdoms and your planets! Actually, I really hope you do! But also, feel free to quickly sketch out the outlines of your protagonist’s room, for example. Don’t feel silly imagining, sketching or even role-playing the smallest of events. The more real it is for you, the more real it could become for your readers.
Since first semester, I have been on a mission to write with more precision. Grammar makes all the difference: I knew that even before the MFA, of course. But over the last two years I’ve learned to slow down and really choose my words, really craft my sentences. I started paying closer attention to the way my particular word arrangements added up to meaning. I got into a habit of asking myself: Am I saying what I think I want to be saying? You might think you don’t need to read a grammar book. I thought so too. Yet, I was glad I did. Shrunk and White’s Elements of Style is a very slim and basic volume. Here are a few other titles, for more grammar fun: The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite by June Casagrande, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.
Finally, working closely with poetry over the course of two semesters awoken me to the glorious sound of language. This awareness of sound is something I carry with me now into every sentence and every story. If you would like to cultivate it, you can start by reading lots and lots (and lots!) of poetry.
Whew! So much learning. 🙂 Time for a break. But please stayed tuned! More soon!