Thursday, April 26, 2007

My Own Self-Guided MFA

Well, it's a good thing I gave myself permission to not write one word while on vacation since that's basically what I did. Or what I didn't do. I admire the concept of writing everyday even at the beach or the ski slopes or wherever your vacation happens to take you. But in reality, sometimes I just need a break from it and am willing to suffer the consequences of that which is that I have to slog my way back into a piece of writing. Although sometimes I come back completely refreshed. Usually it's a combination of the two.

I find myself in this vicious cycle of having a really productive writing day then completely slacking off the next day. Not sure what that is about at all. I even leave myself a note on where to pick up the next day but still I avoid my desk for hours until I get so disgusted with myself that I finally pick up a pen or the mouse just to scribble something even if it's about how disgusted I am that I haven't written all day and lo and behold I am suddenly writing and back in the groove. It's a crazy crazy way to live which makes me believe in having to write and not just wanting to.

I did manage to finish a draft of a story for my group last weekend. It was supposed to be the second story in my collection but it is now the first and it just fits so perfectly there. This is easily the 14th or 15th revision of this particular story and I can tell that although it is very close to being done I probably have another 2 or 3 to go. But these are the fun revisions. It's the polishing of each paragraph and each sentence and validating each word choice. I am currently reading "Reading Like a Writer" by Francine Prose and she has me totally enraptured with language again- both my own and in the writing of others. She opens reading up into this whole new dimension. Which brings me to my current project. This is something I've been meaning to do for a while. It's my own self-guided MFA.

This is the plan. But first a little background...

I came to writing long after I already had a degree in art and began working as a graphic designer. Just when I decided to go back to school to pursue an English degree I found out that I was finally pregnant after trying for two years. So, of course, school gets put on hold. I kept a very tenuous thread connected to writing while my children were little through various workshops and classes. My life line ended up being a workshop through the Writers Voice called "MothersWrite." We gathered each week for two hours to write, talk about writing and how to combine that with motherhood. And they provided childcare. It was a dream come true. Once my youngest had entered precshool I took myself to the Starbucks around the corner and wrote for those 2-3 hours, filling notebooks with tons of what Natalie Goldberg calls writing practice. Characters began to emerge along with possible stories but I wasn't concerned with that, just with showing up to the page.

My real commtitment came once the girls entered school full time. Suddenly there were these seven hours a day that I had to myself. Much of the stories I have finished happened since then. Ron Carlson says that the first 20 stories you write are your apprenticeship. I have 29 that I can recall. Periodically I consider going back to school but that just isn't feasible now that we have two daughters, one only five years away from graduating high school and going off to college herself. So I ask myself what would an MFA give me besides the degree and the connections. 1. Time to write. I've already established that I have that. It's just a matter of using it much more productively than I currently am. 2. Feedback on my work. Well, I have that too. I am part of a committed writing group who provide not only encouragment but incredibly insightful and thoughtful comments that make me want to make my work even better. 3. Reading lists that lead to provocative discussions of classic and contemporary writers. Now I have that too. At least the reading list part. I went online and printed out a couple of MFA Reading Lists then cross checked it against my own extensive collection and came up with a reading plan that should keep me busy for quite awhile.

The plan is to finish the Francine Prose book. (Oh, how I wish I had her leaning over my shoulder as I read, pointing out every nuance of every sentence and word choice.) My hope is that by reading her book it will help make me a more careful reader. The next book will be "Master Class in Fiction Writing" by Adam Sexton. It's broken into elements of fiction accompanied by the story that helps illustrate that particular element of craft.

Story Structure: "Araby"
Characterization: "Sense and Sensibility"
Plot: "The Secret Sharer"
Description: "Rabbit, Run"
Dialogue: "A Severed Head"
POV I- Participant Narrators: "As I Lay Dying"
POV II- Exclusively Observant Narrators: "Beloved"
Style, Voice: "A Farewell to Arms"
The World of Story: "Lolita"

That should keep me busy for the next couple of years since I also plan on continuing with my own reading for pleasure. The main thing I am learning so far is to read much more slowly. To savor the sentences. When I was in art school I was great at the gesture drawings- sketches of live models that we did in one minute increments to warm up. I sturggled when it came time to develop those drawings, layer them with texture and details- very similar to writing. I've filled close to forty notebooks with writing practice which is a bunch of timed writings done- you guessed it- really fast. Now it's time to slow down in both my reading and my writing.

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