For those of you who are unaware, I started a writing MFA program, Stonecoast, this Summer. I know I've mentioned it in this space a few times and I wanted to write about it at more length now that I've just completed the first semester of work. First I'll talk about my intentions in following the grad school route, and then I'll assess what I think I've accomplished this semester. Finally, tacked on to the end in an ungainly manner, I'll run the numbers on what I wrote over the last few months. Sounds fun, right?
First, what I wasn't expecting by attending an MFA program. I don't think writing that leads to publishing can be taught. I certainly had no belief that I would be handed a magical set of rules that, once followed, led to me becoming the next Stephen King. I think that lots of writing and re-writing is the only thing that can lead to publication.
And that's one of the big reasons I wanted to go back to school. Time. I'll admit that last year when I was considering applying to grad school , I was feeling more than a little lost. I had been a stay-at-home dad for two years and while that was great, and continues to be great, it was not how I defined myself. I'd always thought of myself as a writer. Only I wasn't doing much writing. Since 2003, when my first professionally published comic came out, comics was the medium through which I channeled my creativity. There was no comics work. Several proposals had been rejected and no one was exactly knocking down my door to submit more. I knew that the entire industry was in an economic downturn, but that didn't really help boost my ego.
It occurred to me then that I should get back to writing prose. Writing comics had seemed like a sideline back when I was first published, but then it became my sole focus. So, prose. I tried a couple of times to write longer prose pieces -- I've never cared much for writing short stories, though I seem to be developing a taste for them now. But it was hard to find a focus. I struggled for more than a year with one piece, got about 150 pages and then stalled out when my computer suffered a hard drive crash that was unrepairable. After I calmed down about so much wasted work, it was almost a relief. I've since recovered that word document and can't bring myself to go back and reread it to see if it can be salvaged. I may need to just consign it to the dustbin of history, as it were.
I thought that a writing program of some sort might be just what I needed. It would get me back into the habit of writing prose and it would impose a deadline to do so. Perfect. And while I don't believe you can teach someone to write, I did think that a grad program would have other benefits. Among these, I'd be exposed to a group of writing professional and I would get their critiques of my work, I'd meet and (I hoped) become friends with peers who were in the same situation as me, and I would learn from those who had already gone through the process of getting published the ins and outs of the business. Of those three the second, meeting peers, was most important to me. Living where I do, I feel sometimes like I'm living in a creative vacuum. It's been nice to have people I can reach out to via email or facebook and know that they are sharing a similar experience.
Once I decided that a writing program is what I wanted, I had to decide which one. I interviewed a couple of writers who had been through MFAs. They told me the same thing -- an observation borne out on various websites and in interviews I've read. As soon as I told them that I wanted to write genre fiction, their reply was that I would have a difficult time finding a program that would work with me. Most MFA programs are welcoming of non-genre, or literary, fiction and don't know what to do with genre. And even if a program said they'd work with you, I was told, I would find that that statement was designed just to get me in the door. Once there, I'd find an environment hostile to genre fiction. This was discouraging to say the least, and it led to me putting the idea on the back burner for a while.
I was toying with the idea of applying to the Clarion Writers' Workshop, an intensive six-week long "boot camp" for writers, when I heard a radio interview with Kelly Link. Ms Link is a phenomenal writer of surreal short stories and a recent favorite of mine. In the interview she was asked what work she did besides writing and she said that she taught at the Stonecoast MFA. That sent me running to the Internet to look up the program. Like every MFA in the country, Stonecoast has disciplines in Fiction, Non-fiction, and Poetry. What makes them unique is that they also offer a concentration in Popular Fiction (read: Genre Fiction). It didn't take me long to decide that I wanted to go there. And it was the only program to which I applied. If I had not been accepted, I would have taken it as a sign that I wasn't meant to go to grad school and I needed to find another way to advance my writing. I am so happy that I got accepted.
I was even happier when, a few months ago, Poets and Writers magazine named Stonecoast one of the top ten low-residency MFA programs in the country. What, I hear you asking, does low-residency mean? A full-residency program is one which holds classes every day. You stop your life to attend, move to the city where the college is located, etc. A low-res program just means it's part-time. Twice a year I go to Maine for two weeks to attend classes, lectures, and workshops. The rest of the time, I'm at home doing the required homework. I mail off five packets over the six months of the semester and communicate with my advisor (in the program they are called "mentors") over the phone or via email. It's all self-directed and self-motivating so it's really a case of sink or swim for the students.
Which leads to the section where I talk about what I've accomplished. One of the unexpected results of being accepted -- a real sense of urgency to my writing. Seriousness. Fucking gravitas. Let me give you an example using the novel I just finished. In the four months before I started the MFA program, I wrote just 12,500 words -- that's 56 pages. After starting the program in mid-July through the beginning of December -- about four and a half months -- I wrote an additional 91,000 words. That's just shy of 400 pages. And I didn't use the novel toward the page count for my homework. It far exceeded what the school's handbook says to send to the advisors on a monthly basis. I wrote and sent in short stories. If there was a day when I didn't write, I felt bad about myself.
And I wasn't the only person affected by this. Paying for an MFA program makes your family and friends take your writing very seriously. Suddenly my writing became a priority.
I also feel like I've gained confidence in my writing. The comments I received in workshop last July, and the critiques from my advisor, have really boosted my ego -- in a good way. And, not to worry, I'm still getting some fairly humbling responses as well.
Now that I've completed a draft of my novel, I feel like my experience at Stonecoast will be different. Next semester I see myself devoting myself to rewriting the novel and not devoting so much time to writing new material. I'll probably write enough just to satisfy the packet requirements and then use the rest of my time on the rewrites. I want to get this thing polished up and to an agent as soon as possible. I want to see if it's publishable.
And now the numbers:
Last numbers dump of the semester. Here is what I've been doing for the last five months.
As I mentioned, I wrote 91,000 words on my novel. In addition, I also wrote three-and-a-half short stories and a short film script. There was also a new comics proposal thrown in their as well.
Short story A: 8,026
Short story B: 8,682
Short story C: 5,319
Short story D: 5,089 (so far)
Short film: 2,008 (an 11-page script)
Comics project: 1,516
That gives us a grand total of 121, 640 words for the semester. That's 486 pages. Not bad. I guess I don't feel too bad about slowing down through this month (which is all about preparing for the next residency) and the next semester. Come next July, though, I bet I'll be ready to get back on that horse.
I already have an idea for a second novel...