Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

“What Do I Know About Writing Anyway?” One Writer’s Quest for Critiquing Confidence: A Guest Post

Last month I had the good fortune — and the great fun! — of hosting my fellow Darling Assassin Monica Roe with her sage writing advice about working in the NOW. Today, another VCFA classmate, Tziporah Cohen, agreed to share the wisdom she picked up with her MFA over the last two years.

Darling Assassins is the name of my Vermont College of Fine Arts class of January 2015. Recently I asked them: What was the biggest lesson you learned in Vermont? These posts are their answers, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do! 

And here is our Tzippy!

WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT WRITING ANYWAY? ONE WRITER’S QUEST FOR CRITIQUING CONFIDENCE 

by Tziporah Cohen  

One of the ironies of writing is that the better you get at it, the worse you think your writing is. In the beginning, there is a lovely sense that everything you put down on a page is, well, lovely. Only later comes the unpleasant realization that your work only seems good because you don’t yet have the skills to assess it. And how are you supposed to build those self-assessing skills? You can put the answer at the top of my list of lessons learned at VCFA.

In my other life, the non-writer one, I’m a psychiatrist and a mother of three. I feel pretty competent in both those arenas. And heck, while I’m patting myself on the back, the last couple of years have seen me managing a psychiatry practice, family, and a Master of Fine Arts degree at the same time. No easy feat, believe me.

But put me into a workshop, also known as a critique circle, and watch my feelings of competence disappear like a hot dog the give and take of a workshopbun thrown into a flock of pigeons. Workshops are a critical component of the program where I completed my MFA degree. Six to twelve students and one to two faculty meet for twelve hours over several days. Students range from those beginning their first semester to those just about to graduate. Their works in progress are a smorgasbord: picture books, middle grade and young adult novels, fiction and non-fiction, verse and prose.

Don’t get me wrong here. It’s not the being critiqued that has my palms sweaty remembering those early workshops. I’m lucky in that I generally don’t experience much anxiety when my work is reviewed. Perhaps it comes from being an older student, coming at this writing thing from the safety of an established non-writing career, or from having seen enough of life to know that a disappointing critique is just that, not a tragic event. Or perhaps it comes from knowing that the work will be better in the end with the input of others.

But critiquing someone else’s work? That makes me very uncomfortable. What if I send someone down the wrong path? What do I, unpublished newbie, know about writing, anyway?

I spent a lot of time listening in that first workshop, as others debated the writers’ choices of point of view and tense, discussed word choice and voice, and analyzed story arc and desire line, all about of which I knew practically nothing. It’s not an option to say nothing during twelve hours of workshop, though. So I started out, tentative, introducing each of my comments with an “I don’t know, but…” or “It could just be me, but…”

Before my MFA, I either liked a book I read or I didn’t. I didn’t know why. Sixty hours of workshop over two years taught me the why behind that snap judgment. And the real lesson? Workshop taught me that learning to identify the jewels and flaws in someone else’s work is important not just because of how it helps them, but because it is how we learn to identify the jewels and flaws in our own work.

When we leave the security of our writing programs and classes we travel from the safe sanctuary of the workshop circle to the much more challenging wilderness of self-assessment. Yes, we have critique partners, but they don’t want to see every page of every early draft. (They do have their own writing to do.) We need to have confidence in our own ability to see what works and what doesn’t on our own pages. And in submitting our own work to the critical eye we have honed critiquing others, we improve our own writing skills.

I still face every manuscript I critique with some dread, and preface my thoughts with a too-long apologetic paragraph about how unqualified I feel to comment in the first place. But I remind myself that I have as much to offer my writing friends as they have to offer me. And that the process will turn everyone involved into a better writer.

Thank you, Tzippy! I totally know the feeling! 

Tziporah Cohen graduated in January 2015 with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is also a psychiatrist who works in the fields of oncology and palliative care. Hailing from New York and Boston, she currently resides in Toronto with her husband and three children.

June 11, 2015 Posted by | Guest Posts, VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series | , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Problem With When (And the Cumulative Power of Now): A Guest Post

A lot has been going on over here behind the Magic Mirror: some of it writing-related, much of it big and exciting life changes and I promise to explain more soon(ish) 🙂

In the meantime though, I wanted to reach out to my wise and talented writing siblings, my Vermont College of Fine Arts classmates, The Darling Assassins, to see if they had any writerly wisdom to share. 

I asked them: what is the biggest “lesson” you learned in Vermont?

Now I am excited to introduce you to the powerful Monica Roe and her wise answer to my question. Read on, enjoy the views and see for yourself why I love her so.

Take it away, M!

            THE PROBLEM WITH WHEN (AND THE CUMULATIVE POWER OF NOW), by Monica Roe

Monica M. Roe

I’m just not feeling it today. 

I won’t write anything good if my head’s not in it.

Today my schedule is crazy.

Any of these sound familiar? They’re familiar to me!

Hey, I like my sacred desk space as much as the next writer. But there are many days or weeks when that space is simply not available to me. When life gets in my way.

AlaskaFor about four months every year, I travel around the Alaskan bush as a physical therapy consultant for 16 schools in small villages off the road system. Think frozen tundra, -35 temps, the occasional bear or musk ox roaming through town. Four times a year, I remain almost constantly on the move for one month at a time—hopping from village to village on tiny planes, hauling a month’s worth of supplies in a backpack, sleeping on cots, bare mattresses, or sometimes on nothing but a spare gym mat in an unoccupied classroom, library, or closet. It’s wonderful, rewarding work.

But it can be tiring.

From those of you who may not be familiar with itinerant bush travel, it is anything but fancy. Personal space becomes little more than a distant memory. You get used to sleeping wherever, often sharing bunk space with any number of other itinerant specialists who may also be passing through the village. By the end of a month on the road and in the air, I sorely miss my home, my husband, and my cherished and peaceful private writing space. I’m dirty and sleep-deprived and unbelievably tired of scraping together yet another dinner from the dwindling contents of my backpack. Worst of all, though, that constant upheaval of daily travel can also make it feel nigh onto impossible for me to maintain a consistent writing schedule.   Have a plane? Will travel!

I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a tough balance to strike.

My situation may be a bit more extreme than some, but I think this holds true for most of us on some level. We don’t always end up in the same place from hour to hour, let alone from day to day.

So what are we writers to do when life doesn’t allow us large chunks (or even small chunks) of time to sit at our desks and thoughtfully scan the horizon for a glimpse of that wayward, shiny-winged Muse?

I used to think that if I didn’t have that perfect space—both physical and mental—in which to write, I’d maybe just be better off waiting until I did have it. Until I was back home, until life calmed down enough for those perfect conditions to coalesce.

Just another commute...All of that changed abruptly when I entered the program at VCFA. Suddenly, I no longer had that luxury of putting off the writing until next week or next month. If I did not find some way to pound out those essays and generate those creative pages on the road, they simply would not get done. It was a tough transition to make, and I can recall more than one instance where I frantically finished writing an essay during a bumpy inter-village flight (including one memorable time when I also got airsick coming over a mountain range) in order to make a midnight packet deadline. It was not exactly how I’d envisioned working on my MFA.

But somewhere along the way, it finally sunk into my brain that my life wasn’t, in fact, two separate and non-overlapping halves of “writing” and “other stuff.” To put it bluntly, if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to be writing—regardless of which phase of my life balance I was currently inhabiting.

It can be oh, so tempting to simply put the writing off. Village morning in Alaska

I’ll try again tomorrow.

When I have more time.

When I’m not dragging my backpack through three feet of snow to get to the airstrip.

                                  When I can actually sit at my own desk.

            When

                                                         When

                                                                                          When

The problem with when is that he’s a tricky little demon. Always dangling that carrot, promising that one day we’ll have the perfect time and the perfect headspace in which to sit down and pound out that masterpiece…or even that so-so first draft.

As an unexpected side effect of my time in the MFA program at VCFA, I have lost all faith in that sparkly and Puckish when.

I have gained a firm belief in the unglamorous and dependable now. 

I am squished into a plane between 800 pounds of cargo and a huge sack of mail. I will write 50 words now, no matter how lousy. Ah, but the views!

I am camped in a school and it’s evening open gym night. I will write 100 words now, even though I can hear the basketballs thumping right through the music from my headphones. 

I am in my sleeping bag, lying on a mattress in a supply closet and desperately wishing to fall asleep so I can be at least somewhat rested in the morning. I will scribble one paragraph now, even though I cannot think of one interesting thing to say. Those nows, I have discovered, may be unglamorous and arduous at times. They may feel like throwaway writing, a waste of precious moments.

But those tiny little nows also do something amazing.

They add up. Become paragraphs and pages. Become chapters and messy first drafts. Even more important, they keep us in the game. The arduous, unglamorous, and massively rewarding game.

Stay in the game now. Get messy now. Even if it’s an airplane essay.

You just might surprise yourself.

 Monica M. Roe is a graduate of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at VCFA. She also holds a doctorate in physical therapy from Clarkson University and works as a consultant on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. Her YA novel, THAW, was published in 2008 by Front Street Books (she’s a very slow writer!). When she isn’t traveling in Alaska, she can often be found in rural South Carolina, where she and her husband run Old Swamp Apiary, a small-scale farm and beekeeping operation.  

May 13, 2015 Posted by | Guest Posts, VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series | , , | 9 Comments