My friend Elizabeth and I have bonded over food, Twitter, grief, writing, and many things in between. She has been an informal writing mentor for me in this private MFA process, and while she’s published quite a bit (poetry, essay, memoir, creative nonfiction), she doesn’t have an MFA, herself. I’ve admired her bold and sensual writing for a while now, seeing various pieces online (more about where to find her writing below). She’s married to a longtime dear friend, Colin Rafferty, which is how we met. I’m happy to introduce her here, as the inaugural guest poster in my “Other People’s (Private) MFA” series.
1. Did you go through an MFA program? If so, how was it structured?
I do not have an MFA, and I’m not sure I’ll ever pursue one. I’ve told myself that if I ever reach a point where I can’t find the time or the community I need to do the writing I want to do, I’ll think about my commitment to writing, and, assuming it still holds, I’ll then consider the MFA. From my vantage point, those two things–time to write and a writing community–appear to be the most valuable aspects of an MFA program. For those reasons, I’d probably gravitate toward a longer, residential program instead of more compressed options.
2. If you were to design your own private MFA for yourself—either before or after going through your MFA program—what would it look like, and why?
I’d love to answer the question you’ve actually asked–what I would do. But I think it’s more honest to tell you what I have done in “my own private MFA” (thanks for the term!), and to acknowledge that it hasn’t all been intentional or well-conceived.
I spent several years running from writing, for various and complicated reasons, most of them concerning my twenty-something-self trying to figure out how to make her way in the world, and exactly what sort of way she hoped to make. Eventually, I realized that writing was an essential part of that way. I think that realization was an important thing for me–it took embarking on a life without writing to make me see how crucial writing is to the life I want to live.
Once I acknowledged that, I started setting my life up to make it conducive to writing. Some things—and, frankly, some people—weren’t really amenable to my choices. I got out of a bad relationship in part (though certainly not entirely) because my then-partner disparaged my longing to be a writer and actually referred to his belief that someday I would “wake up and realize this writing thing isn’t real life.” When I did go back to graduate school, I was too scared to acknowledge my fervent belief that my critical sensibilities and my writerly tendencies are intricately connected, so I applied to PhD programs and pretended for a time that my creative work was outside of my academic interests.
I was wrong about that, and things got easier once I sorted that out. So here are the things I’ve done in “my own private MFA” that I’d recommend for others.
- Surround yourself with a variety of talented writers and readers. You won’t agree with them all in issues of aesthetics or craft, and that’s okay, even good. Learn from them. Talk with them extensively about writing and reading, about art and process and anything else that comes up.
- Find a local writing group. Take a class.
- Go to AWP, the yearly conference of writers and writing programs, and spend a lot of time in the book fair. Find some journals you love (one of mine is Hayden’s Ferry Review, which published the first prose poem I ever wrote ) and support them loyally. Read them. Subscribe to them.
- Read voraciously. Think about what you read. Consider why it works or doesn’t work. Talk to others about what they read. Ask people you admire what they are reading. Ask what you should be reading.
- Read in different genres and forms and time periods and traditions. Read classics from the canon–I especially like Homer, Donne, and Woolf, but you should read enough to figure out who you like and why.
- Read contemporary work–start with Brian Oliu‘s new collection So You Know It’s Me, any of Beth Ann Fennelly‘s poetry collections, and the weekly advice column Dear Sugar. Read anything that interests you–not just literary works, but history and biography and field guides and maps and instructional booklets and anything else you can get your eyes on.
- Memorize the writing of other people. This works best if you’re into poetry, of course, but I think you could pull off flash prose pieces, too. Let words percolate. Let them be the rhythm that undergirds your daily life. You know how songs can get stuck in your head sometimes? Try to switch out songs for poems.
- Write your ass off. This is something that gets overlooked a lot, which is weird. But a lot of writers–at time, myself included–go through phrases where they pretend that writing is a mystical thing that just comes to you. Sometimes it does, and that’s lovely. But in my experience, that’s rare. Be attentive enough to listen–if you notice your inner voice or your muse or whatever you want to call it tugging at you with an opening line or an idea, then certainly be mindful of that. But don’t sit around and wait for it. Write. Get a schedule going. Have regular times when you commit to writing. Sometimes you’ll produce crap. But sometimes you won’t, and that is good.
- You’ll read a lot about people who write every day. This is interesting to me, though I’ve never really done it. If it works for you, fine. If not, that’s fine, too. My point isn’t that you have to write for any arbitrary period of time. Rather, it’s that you should allocate times to write and stick to those. Don’t cancel or postpone them for quotidian things. Keep those appointments as if they were sacred. They are.
- Once you get a sense of what you do well, experiment with something different. If you write long forms, try shorter ones. If you’re a poet, try your hand at prose. Write a review, a letter, a list. Find things in your daily life that are not usually approached as writing opportunities, and make them writing opportunities.
- Eventually, find readers you trust to look at your work. Accept criticism. Be willing to change things, but always know how to stay true to your vision. Recognize that your vision may not always be marketable or publishable. Figure out your priorities, and proceed accordingly.
- To the extent that you’re able, think about working in projects or units. I picked this up from my friend & fellow writer Brian Oliu, who’s also one of my favorite people to engage in conversations about writing. Writing a poem or essay or story is like planting a tree. Be mindful of the forest.
3. Do you teach creative writing, or do you teach in an MFA program now? How do you measure student progress, or grading?
I currently teach literature and writing (i.e,, composition) courses at the University of Mary Washington. I do include some creative work in most of my classes, and I generally try to stress process. Work rarely emerges fully-formed. The real work of writing is in revision, and I try to teach my students that.
4. What have you read lately that’s just blown you away?
This essay on writing and gender by Lidia Yuknavitch. And this benefit e-book of Alabama writers in the wake of the deadly tornadoes that hit the state in April: (full disclosure: I have a piece in this collection, but that’s not why I’m plugging it. See the essay by B.J. Hollars. See the poem by M.C. Hyland. These are the stories of my town and her people. Please read them.) And this debut short story collection by Alissa Nutting.
5. What are you working on now? Do you have anything coming out? Can you say a little bit more about it here?
I’m wrapping up a sequence of prose poems that synthesizes the protagonist’s medical history with a love story.
I’ve been writing a lot about grief this year.
I’m pretty sure my next project is going to concern the circus.
Later this year, I’ll have pieces from the prose poem sequence out with Packingtown Review, Kenyon Review Online, AGNI, and Shadowbox Magazine. I also have two nonfiction shorts forthcoming this year from Sweet. These pieces concern the recent death of my younger brother, Austin–or, maybe it’s more accurate to say they concern me as I learned to deal with his death. And my poem “Selling the Saddle” will be out in Cave Wall next year. This is a longer poem that traverses everything from sex to death, from tampons to Kentucky basketball legends. It sprawls. I kind of love it.
These are all great journals, and I’m thrilled to be included in them. Also, I tend to post little “behind-the-writing” pieces on my blog for each publication. To read those and see my previous publications, please see this site.
Many thanks, Elizabeth! As I said to you once, I look forward to some distant kitchen where we will bake and cook and eat and write together into the wee hours of the morning.