5(ish) Questions: Christine Lee Zilka’s Own MFA

Up next in the “(private)” MFA series is Christine Lee Zilka. We met recently on Twitter, partly through a mutual friend, partly because I knew (from research a while back) that she was editor-at-large of Kartika Review before I submitted my essay. Hooray for the wonders of social media. Somehow, on Twitter, the automatic Bay Area radar kicked in, and we discovered that we’d attended this school at the same time, lived in adjacent dorms, both majored in English, but never met each other. (And really, being an Asian English major meant that we probably would have seen each other in classes at one time or another.)  Christine blogs here about her novel-in-process, and she’s got a few pieces of writing coming out soon. I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.

1. Did you go through an MFA program? If so, how was it structured?

I went to Mills College for my MFA; the coursework was a balance of craft+literature classes and workshops. I don’t think Mills is necessarily any different from other MFA programs–but I did appreciate the practice of including reading along with writing as discipline.

The breakdown of requirements was/is as follows:
4 writing workshops
3 literature courses (including up to 2 classes on craft)
3 elective credits
1 thesis class

As a two year (four semester) program, this list works out to one workshop per semester, two of which had to be in the genre of specialty (creative non-fiction, fiction, or poetry) and a courseload of 2-3 classes per semester. We assembled our thesis team (an advisor and a reader) at the beginning of our second year–and we met with our advisor regularly throughout the second year to touch base on the progress of our manuscripts.

Mills does NOT read prose thesis manuscripts longer than 90 pages (or was it 120 pages)–either way, it is nowhere near book length, for better and for worse).

I decided to stretch my MFA out to three years–and because I unexpectedly got sick and had to withdraw for a semester, I ended up taking 3.5 years.

2. If you were to design your own private MFA for yourself—either before or after going through your own MFA program—what would it look like, and why? What would be your goals? How would you challenge yourself, solicit feedback, create a writing community?

As you can see with the MFA requirements above, it’s possible to replicate the MFA educational structure: you can take workshops on a regular basis, establish a writing group, read books and get a reading group together to critique the works (and if you so desire, go so far as to discuss them as a writer–from a craft perspective). There are books like Janet Burroway‘s “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft” and John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” and then there is Jane Smiley’s “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel” as reference.

But you see–I didn’t go to an MFA program purely for the workshops and classes–I went to establish a writing life, find mentors, and find a community of writers. I had denied myself a life as a writer for so long that I needed a very clear change in my environment, and that is something the MFA program provided me. If you can’t/won’t attend an MFA program, you can still achieve this by applying to writing workshops and conferences whereby you travel to a different geography or climate and immerse yourself as a writer for a week or two or three.

Summer writing workshops/conferences aren’t cheap, but they are still cheaper than the cost of most MFA programs without scholarship. And summer conferences are certainly more transient (1-2 weeks long) and can accommodate a fulltime working schedule. (Even filling out the applications for such summer programs is an enlightening process–you will be asked questions on “what you hope to gain from the experience” and possible questions asking you to detail what it is you write about. All good things to know about yourself as a writer).

I went to Squaw, and it helped me shift direction. It was the place I decided I wanted to pursue an MFA. And of course there are other writing conferences–like Napa Valley Writers Workshop, which is so wonderful and craft-focused with amazing writing workshop leaders each summer. And VONA. I have made writer friends for life at each of these summer workshops, and they are still an invaluable part of my community.

One of the pitfalls of an MFA program is that you are exposed to the same feedback for the entirety of your education–the same peers, the same professors, even if you try hard to make sure you take classes with different people and instructors. I have told people in MFA programs to expand their community, and go to workshops and conferences.

And I’d advise the same for people not within an MFA program–go to different workshops and conferences, find your people. Apply and go to Squaw, to Napa Valley, to VONA. Go to your neighborhood UC Extension or if you’re in NYC, Gotham Writers Workshop. Get your feedback there, make friends, gain mentorship.

There is a lot of pushback on Twitter and FB in the writing community–seeing these things as “distractions,” but for me they are another inlet of community. I have made friends and have a support system on these networks. In fact, that’s how you and I met–! Facebook and twitter are helpful ways to gain community and support and insight–just so long as of course you keep your writing routine up.

Blogging is also helpful–a way to keep in touch with others, exercise your craft. Get your feedback. Make connections. Throw out your questions and doubts to the universe on your blog, and most likely than not, you’ll get a response.

As for goals–I think that’s a personal matter. I’m an extremely slow writer, and I don’t think the two years of an MFA program is enough time for me to finish a book-length manuscript. And quite honestly, I’d rather spend two years writing 75 pages that I am proud to have written. But yes, you should have goals–whether that is a collection
of stories, or 3 stories…or if the goal is to just to have sent your writing out to a number of litmags.

But don’t make your goals ones that are dependent on others. Like, don’t make it your goal “to get published.” So much of being published is not contingent on you, but on others–on others’ subjective reaction to your writing and their own timelines. Send your writing out, and make it a goal to submit to 30 literary magazines, but don’t make it a goal to get published in 5 literary magazines.

Enjoy the process. Write. Read. It doesn’t have to take two years. It can take three and a half years. Or five.

3. What have you read lately that’s just blown you away?

Mat Johnson‘s Pym: Read it for the voice! And you’ll laugh, even as the story investigates the idea of race that will stimulate both cortex and funny bone function. Oh, and if you’re a Poe fan, then this is a must-read for sure. Vida by Patricia Engel. Best short story collection of 2010! Sabina is the recurring protagonist throughout the entire collection–and her voice and character: pitch-perfect and whipsmart.

I recently read an amazing story on “The Lazarus File” by Matthew McGough in The Atlantic. Amazing read about a cold case brought to life by DNA evidence–and so the article is as much about the case as how DNA evidence has revolutionized homicide investigation. The article is excellent journalism–but in particular, I admired the way in which McGough structured his article.

I’m a big Haruki Murakami, Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Díaz and John Irving fan. I also love Nicole Krauss, whose book Great House came out last year. I loved her book The History of Love, and Great House addresses many of the same themes. The structure of the book is atypical and precarious (can you tell I’m obsessed with novel structure?) but the characters hold the novel together–they were characters I knew I could hang with for hundreds of pages.

Alexander Chee has an essay called “Fanboy” online at The Morning News. Comic books are amazing–if you walk into a comic bookstore, the place is full of disenfranchised men, and men who yearn for power vicariously through comic book heroes. But Alexander Chee, in this essay, examines comic books from a multitude of perspectives, from his biracial isolation, to U.S. imperialism.

And my mom just gave me a copy of Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. It’s just been released in English translation. My mom said the novel blew her away when she read it in the original Korean years ago. I just started reading it–but already, I’m so impressed. The entire novel is written in the always risky second-person point of view.

4.What are you working on now? Do you have anything coming out? Can you say a little bit more about it here?

I’m working on a novel. An excerpt of my novel will appear in an anthology entitled “Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience“, available in October 2011. The anthology is comprised of pieces by women writers writing sex scenes from the male perspective–a response to our literary canon comprised of men like Flaubert to D.H. Lawrence to Philip Roth writing sex scenes from the female perspective. The anthology’s call for submissions spurred me to write a long overdue sex scene in my novel. I can’t wait to read all the pieces within the anthology! It’ll be out via Other Voices/DZANC books this Fall.

I’ve also got a short story forthcoming in Kweli Journal. The piece is called “Ume,” and it was a piece that used to be twice as long and told from the point of view of both a father and a son–but I edited it down for length, to just the father’s POV. It worked, I think, much better as a short piece in that way. The piece is particularly meaningful for me because it was the first piece I wrote after I had my stroke, from which I took about 2 years to recover. There was nothing wrong with me on a musculature level, but I lost my short term memory capabilities, and I had a lot of cognitive issues that prevented me from reading a story, let alone writing one. By the time I heard from Kweli, I’d sent “Ume” out to about 50 litmags, and I’d almost lost hope that I would find this story a home. I’m so glad Kweli took it in, and I’m really glad that the home is Kweli Journal, which is a fantastic literary journal focusing on writers of color.

Thanks for participating, Christine! I’ve learned a lot from your post, and I love the idea of the MFA’s purpose “to establish a writing life.” I also like the idea that the goal of being a writer is not necessarily “to get published”–behind this ideal is, I think, the drive to appreciate the writing life for what it is. I’m a huge fangirl of Murakami and Diaz (and Chee) as well. I hope we’ll get to meet someday.

Now, contemplate death

A few years ago I asked a group of students, bless their hearts, to write their own obituaries.

Now, of course there was a reason. It was a course which introduced students to the English major, and I thought that writing their own obituaries would help them to articulate their life goals, even if in a surprising fashion. Or rather, I hoped that the surprise of the assignment would propel them to unexpected insights, to help them answer that eternal question: “What are you going to do with an English major?”

And yes, it was a morbid assignment; I’m not sure that it worked for everyone.  Confessing further, it might not have been the best idea to ask them to write it on, um, the first day of class. In class. Oh, my. “Welcome to the class: now, contemplate death.”

(Then again, many great works of literature have said the same thing, if much more poetically. Maybe not on the first page, however.)

Nevertheless, I didn’t expect that my own response to the assignment would startle me.

While my students wrote, I wrote quickly too, scribbling notes and sentences down the page of my teaching journal. I envisioned what I would do when I retired from teaching, and I envisioned what others would say. I even found myself picturing what my daughters would say, and this sentence emerged from my fictionally-grown-up eldest daughter:

“She really loved all the ways that the written word could bring people together.”

Today I’ve been thinking about what this sentence means. This morning, my husband said that in itself, it’s a blog post, or a longer essay. And one of my failings as a writer is that I can be too elliptical: too often, readers will have to ask me to explain further about what a statement means, or to give an example. I discovered a few years ago that I’m an under-writer, rather than an over-writer. I suspect this is why I’m more of a poet than a novelist. I expect very little to say a great deal.

Exhibit A: my short paragraphs.

Exhibit B: “Say more,” urged one of my early graduate school professors. Still terrified of speaking in class, I stumbled when so pressed. I said something! Now you want me to say more?

And of course, I know there are exceptions to my rule: there are many wonderful novelists whose prose conveys a great deal with very little. But what does this sentence from my own fictional obituary mean? I’ve got just over half an hour left of power on my computer, so I’ll use that time pressure (raging against the dying of the long-overdue Northwest sunlight) to see where it takes me. All right:

• I love how intimately the written word can bring two individuals together. In one of my favorite moments from the film Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy’s character says something like, “If there was a God, it wouldn’t be in you and it wouldn’t be in me. Just in the space in between.” I feel that way about writing: at its very best, the space between writer and reader holds the potential for the divine: for the transcendent. I can travel far from my self, see unexpected reflections of myself—and return, forever changed.

• I also love how the written word can bring large groups of people together. I love how having a common buy ventolin online no prescription reading (if not a common reading experience) can open spaces for conversation. A few summers ago, I led a book group discussion for faculty and staff members on my campus. It was a relatively rare and relatively frank discussion about issues of race and privilege, particularly among faculty and staff. There are far more people of color on staff than there are among the faculty. While I know a common reading did not level the playing field, I loved how so many moments in the reading provided so many resonant spaces for people to speak.

• I love how the written word makes me imagine and makes me empathize, even and perhaps especially when it costs me something to do so. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.

• And—how do I say this without irony? I’ll risk it—I love how the written word makes my light shine. When I am passionate about a book, or a story, or a play, I want you to read it, and I want to talk about it with you and I want this experience to texturize the connection that we have with each other. Through sheer enthusiasm, I can bully you into reading whatever I’ve loved lately, or for a long time. (Don’t be afraid. I do take your preferences into account before I recommend anything.) Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Li-Young Lee’s first chapbook, Rose, the first and last stories in Nam Le’s collection The Boat, Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. Just to start. Few things make me as happy as talking about a book that I love.

I am taking some time this summer to rethink what I’ll do professionally in a couple of years. So far, all I know is that I want my life to reflect that obituary sentence: “She really loved all the ways that the written word could bring people together.” I want it to be a sentence that could easily describe me, and not just by someone who knows me really well.

I’ve wandered a bit this week, trying to depressurize from a difficult year (see post below: 2-hour nap!). I reached some solid ground in the stacks of my public library, and, once I recognized it, laughed at myself. Oh, right: the written word. As I think and rethink, I’m calling on the wisdom of Baby Suggs from Toni Morrison’s epic novel Beloved: “She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.”

If I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a couple of years just yet, I’ve got a compass direction.

P.S. For Monday’s post, blogger Shauna James Ahern (aka Gluten-Free Girl) has invited everyone to write about the first thing you cooked, and how it made you feel. She’ll be collecting responses, so you could send a message to glutenfreegirl at gmail dot com., or post a link in your comments on Monday. (Though the invitation was on Twitter, I don’t think she’ll mind if it’s over 140 characters or not.) I’ll be participating. I hope you will, too.