MFA Update: 3rd Residency

IMG_3638

I had a great time last week visiting the Mountainview Grand Resort for my third residency week in the Low-Residency MFA program offered by SNHU. The week started off with the usual “What to expect this semester” meeting, except this time instead of talking craft essays, we talked about the close reading essay. I’ll be doing mine on “The Flower” by Louise Erdrich.

Peer workshops went really well and I got some excellent direction for a story I wrote that felt as stuck as my main character. Turns out I can actually get two stories out of it if I craft them properly. I think I will at least try to do so!

The craft workshops were amazing, especially the Epiphanic Moment session. I won’t go into details because the stories used were not mine, and therefore the lives used were not mine, but it was like witnessing first-hand a therapy session that brought the core of the writer’s pain into the stories used. It was beautiful and surprising, and something I will always carry with me. And the writers whose stories we used will always be brave in my eyes, braver than most.

This summer’s guest author was Danielle Evans, who is as kind as she is brilliant. Seriously, if you’ve not read her collection of short stories, titled Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, get on that. You won’t regret it. We also had a guest editor visit from FSG, who gave a talk and then joined two recent grads who already have book contracts a year after graduating.

I taught a self-defense seminar that was a great deal of fun, and would have gone on longer if my voice hadn’t been drowned out by a lawnmower. I learned later in the week that there’s studio space in the fitness center (I’d probably have known that if I worked out while at residency), but alas–it was days after the workshop.

For readings, I chose three: a portion of my thesis for the pre-dinner reading, and a portion of a short story I’m working on as well as a Hamilton-inspired political rap. All of them were lots of fun to give, but what I’m happiest about is that it’s getting easier to read in front of what I consider huge groups (60+ people) without reading so fast no one could possibly hope to understand me. I owe a lot of that to the advice I received from David Simpatico, Mountainview MFA alum, actor, and fabulous playwright.

Overall, it was a week of learning, a week of not enough sleep, and a week at the end of which I struggled to keep from getting choked up as graduates returned for a final celebration of their work. I’m halfway through the program–actually 3 credits more than halfway now–and I feel like the next two semesters are going to fly even faster than the first two.

MFA Update: 6 More Days

alphabet blur close up font

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

With my final deadline of the semester in less than a week, I’ll be focusing my efforts this week on my craft essays. I have two more to write to close out the semester, and some reading to do in order to write them. My 30 pages of fiction are written, and I’ve taken them through one round of edits. Ideally, I’d like to do one more round before sending them on to my mentor next week.

What I’ve Learned This Semester

I had such fun this semester experimenting with my thesis. I played with structure, style, and point of view. I tried everything from an epistolary approach to writing the story as though it were in an online forum. I thought about my novel in terms of a linked collection of short stories.

After all of this, I’ve come back around closer to my original approach, but I definitely learned a lot about myself as a writer along the way, including the value of experimenting with my story.

I wrote the same scenes in so many ways that I now feel confident in my approach. Oh, and my story changed. I always expect that to happen, and it’d happened already a few times…but it’s changed even more and the change is freeing.

Speaking of freeing, I found a way to loosen up my prose. I’m sure my reading list has something to do with it–prior to entering this program, most of the books I read were classics. I am still reading classics, but for many of them, the language is a bit stiffer than contemporary prose. By bringing my reading list forward in time and studying more contemporary authors, my voice has loosened up a bit.

Residency Is In 2.5 Weeks

And I’ve critiqued three stories for peer workshop, but I still have five to go. I’m really enjoying them, and am trying to finish one every other day so I have almost the whole week before residency free.

Going into my third residency, the only cause for sadness is that it means I’ll only have one more left.

This summer, I’ll be teaching a self-defense seminar because so many people in the program have expressed an interest in learning. Some of my fellow MFA candidates have some martial arts experience already, and I know of at least one who also holds a black belt. At the least, it’ll be an opportunity to move around for about an hour or so. As wonderful as residency is, it involves a lot of sitting.

I’m looking forward to the trip up to the mountains this year, too. I’ll have the company of a good friend (who is attending her fourth residency), and with good company, the ride will be great. It’s about 4-4.5 hours.

For My Third Semester

Residency is when I find out who my next mentor will be, but I’d be more than happy with any of the three I requested. Third semester works a bit differently than the first and second semesters in that I don’t have to write the ten craft essays anymore.

Instead, I’ll be writing a 10-15-page close reading essay. I’m psyched about this because to be honest, I’m a little weary of the craft essays and looking forward to sinking my teeth into the close reading. I’m eager to dive deep into a text and really pick it apart.

My goals for my thesis are to produce as much of it as I can. Aside from the 30-pages-every-five-weeks deadlines, I’d love to have a rough draft finished by the end of this year. According to Scrivener, about 270 words a day will do the trick. That’s pretty easy, especially when I know where I’m headed with my story. I’ve been writing more than that each day, so I imagine I’ll hit my goal of 75,000 words before the year is out.

I’m so glad I delayed trying to pump out a first draft. Last residency, one of the other students (who is graduating this June), cautioned me against doing that in my second semester. He advised me to have fun in my second semester and to give myself room to play and experiment with my text. This was fantastic advice and I’ll be forever grateful to him for encouraging me to slow down.

Final Thoughts

Time is passing so quickly in retrospect, but there are times when it passes so slowly in the middle of the semester. I think the next few weeks are going to fly by because I’ll be focused on preparing for residency and finishing my submission for the next week and a half. Then, the week after that, I’ll want to finish my Pride and Prejudice guides for Literature Lessons so they’re complete before I leave. Residency week always goes fast. Always.

When I get back from residency, it’ll be time to start my work for my next submission as well as planning for next fall, when I’ll be teaching freshman composition. I’ll also be teaching a creative writing class, but I have that course almost entirely worked out from when I was pursuing my M.A. I just have to look over the lesson plans and materials, and make sure everything still fits.

My main goal for next semester is to produce a complete draft. My other goals will depend on which mentor I’m assigned. I’ll post my next MFA update after residency.

MFA Update: Residency Reflections

Sunsets, snow, and mountains…that’s right, I had another residency, this time in the deep arctic blast. Now I’ve attended two out of four residencies, and while I enjoyed myself immensely and am chomping at the bit to get into my work for the semester (and I already have), it was also a reminder of how fast the time passes. With two residencies down, I have only two more to go. Out of “the bubble,” that space we refer to where we’re in a safe space where all of us value the craft of writing and share pieces of ourselves, here are my reflections as a second-semester MFA student.

Peer Workshops

Something special happened in my peer workshop group–not that it didn’t in June, but I’m not writing about June’s residency right now. Not only did we find a way to help each other with our stories, but we also laughed together. There were only three people in my workshop who I felt I knew–two other women in my cohort and a woman from the class ahead of mine whom I befriended last residency.

There were three other students I didn’t get the chance to get to know last June, and it was fantastic learning about them. One of them kept astonishing me with an openness and personal courage that is nothing short of inspiring. Then, there were two students from the incoming cohort. Both great writers, and great people.

Finally, what made this group so special was the pair of mentors facilitating the twelve hours we spent together. I’m not going to name drop, but they’re pretty amazing and so is their fiction. Their insights, good humor, and approachable manner made it a joy to learn to from them.

Thanks to the feedback I received from both of them and my peers, I have decided to make a drastic change to my thesis novel that will solve the pacing issues; scenes were moving too rapidly and they confirmed for me that as readers, they didn’t have the time to get settled in them. They also confirmed that my proposed changes would solve this issue. I don’t want to get into too much detail because I don’t want to give anything away…but suffice to say instead of covering a 65-year lifespan, my novel will cover about 5-6 months.

Craft & Elective Workshops

In addition to peer workshops, part of the residency curriculum features craft and elective workshops. The craft workshops were fun and helpful. Some of the information was something I’d learned before, but I really enjoyed hearing another writer’s take on a subject and letting lessons sink in again. At other times, the information was new and entirely helpful.

Elective workshops I attended (of which we had to choose two) included discussions on the unreliable narrator, an agent Q&A, and a talk on beginnings by Zia Haider Rahman, who might just be one of the coolest people I’ve had the honor to meet. If I ever had the chance to take more classes from him, I’d jump at the opportunity.

Readings

At each residency, there are several types of readings: nightly faculty readings, nightly student readings, and a special students-only reading on Wednesdays. I won’t say who read what, but there were texts shared that required open hearts to read and listen, and I couldn’t be prouder or more honored to have participated, even as a reader.

For my own readings, I chose a portion of my short story, “Hunger,” and a rap/poem I’d written based on Hamilton: The American Musical. For that one, I got the audience involved, repeating the chorus.

Everything Else

The graduation ceremony for the graduating cohort, the dance party afterwards, the several hours spent in the game room with friends, the night of no water, the visit from the fire department when pipes burst, the tiny snowman we found, the hours chatting with friends and fellow writers, the four hours with my roommate and cohort-mate traveling to and from the hotel, and everything else that goes on residency was so enjoyable that I didn’t want to leave. At least…not until the temps dropped back into the negatives.

My next residency is in five months and two days. I’m so looking forward to jumping back into it, even though it will be my third of four residencies, and I will likely be even more sad to leave.

So it begins…

I’m thrilled that residency is less than a month a way. This June to January stretch feels so long. I’ve had a nice one day break between the end of the undergraduate semester (my TA work) and starting working on my peer critiques. I have 150 pages of fiction to critique by Jan. 7.

It’s definitely doable, but more than that, I’m looking forward to the work. Even more than that, I’m looking forward to the actual peer critique sessions. Here’s my process:

  1. Read through a short story just to get the lay of the land.
  2. Read through again, marking what works for me and what doesn’t with check marks or underlined text.
  3. Read through a third time, making in-margin comments.
  4. Write the 1-page letter critique that goes to each author in my group.

First Read-Through

On my first read-through, I’m really just trying to get a feel for characters and the story as a whole. This is the type of read-through that prevents me questioning something only to later find out the answer exists in the story. Reading through without a pen in hand also helps me enjoy the story as a reader. After all, my job as a peer is not to edit the text.

Rather, it’s to provide a reader-response from a fellow fiction writer and MFA candidate.

Second Read-Through

For this step, I pick the pen up for the first time. I don’t write any words but just mark what works and what I feel could be improved. That’s the only purpose of this read through–registering my reactions.

I’ll mark beautifully-turned phrases, awkward word choices, etc…but I lay off grammar/typos. My purpose is not to proofread the story, especially at this stage.

Third Read-Through

This is where I will call attention to any typos or grammatical snafus. But, far more importantly, I’ll write why something works or me or doesn’t. If it doesn’t, I might offer some ideas for how a particular passage can be improved. As I read through, I’m also thinking about my big-picture reactions because that’s what I’m going to highlight in the letter.

Writing the Letter

There are some things I’m required to cover in the letter. I have to provide a one-sentence summary of the story. I have to describe what I liked and why, and offer a suggestion for moving forward that can include anything from trying a new point of view to changing the ending. These letters are a nice way to personally connect with writers in my group, especially if I haven’t met an author.

The letter will also serve as a reminder later. The night before someone’s story is critiqued, I will re-read the letter I wrote for them and glance through the comments I wrote on their story so that everything comes to mind quickly and easily.

Have you ever participated in a peer critique?

Peer critique is my favorite part of residency–and there’s so much to love, from readings to classes, from seeing dear friends to the party at the end of the week. But there’s something so unique and special about critiquing in a group in person. I was both tired and sad when it was over in June and even though it can be anxiety-producing to be critiqued, I’m still looking forward to it.

So here’s my question for you: Have you ever been critiqued in a group setting? Did you like it? Why or why not? Toss your thoughts up in the comments!

MFA Update: Final Submission of the Semester

update-1672363_1920

Thesis

In just over two weeks, my final submission of the semester is due, and I just deleted what I’d written so far toward my 30 pages of fiction for that submission.

Yesterday, on my 3-hour drive to New Hampshire for my TA responsibilities, I had several chapter epiphanies:

  • The chapter about the Mystic Massacre needs to start right near the end of the event and fill in with carefully crafted flashbacks.
  • I need to flush out a conflict for my protagonist that shows that when the other men he’s working with are together, he becomes more of a bystander and less of a factor in making decisions. I need to go back and strengthen this in earlier chapters because it is at the end of this chapter that he overcomes that, in order to allow him to do what he needs to in the next chapter.
  • I need to emphasize his guilt that his actions in the previous chapter made the massacre more likely.

To accomplish all of this, I had to delete what I’d already written. This leads me to a conclusion I’ve long held but not experienced in a while:

Sometimes writing requires taking two steps forward, and one back.

This is okay. I think a writer ought to be comfortable with the delete key, and not fear it. Why continue to thrust writing on a reader that does not best serve the story? It might be lyrically beautiful, but that’s not enough of a reason to keep it.

So, that leaves me with two weeks to write, edit, and revise about 10,000 words–but I’m excited about the task.

Another major change I’ve made in my thesis is that I had planned, originally, on characterizing real people who lived in the past and influenced the events in my book. The difficulties with this approach proved to be three-fold:

  1. I felt constrained like I couldn’t take a character too far from who they really were. For a fiction writer, it’s important to have the freedom to develop characters.
  2. I wanted to make one such character an antagonist. However, I don’t think that person in history was the way I want to characterize him. This man has hundreds of descendants and I wouldn’t want to alienate them because I made their ancestor out to be a horrible person just to suit my story.
  3. There are many characters on whom I can find very little information. I felt imbalanced completely making them up on my own while other characters had definite timelines and personality traits.

For this reason, I need to rename all of my characters. This is a fun process, albeit time-consuming, as I typically like to do some research and choose names for a reason, instead of just picking them out of a hat. But I’ve already decided what I will rename my protagonist, so it’s a start.

Craft Essays and Exercises

I don’t often blog about the non-thesis work I’ve been submitting all semester. I’m not sure why, but with the semester winding down, this seems as good a time as any to write about these other elements.

The craft essays are both frustrating and satisfying. I always find finishing an academic essay satisfying because it’s like solving a puzzle. I love proving my point through writing, which I know is an unpopular opinion among many. Yet, I enjoy it. Even when I’ve not loved the book I was assigned, I’ve enjoyed writing the essay. I have two more to go. I’ll write one this week, and another next week for a total of 10 this semester.

My mentor assigned me 3 writing exercises this semester, all of which I found both helpful and enjoyable. Some of them involved research, one of them involved going to a place of personal emotion so powerful that it released some of the grief I’ve been working through since the death of my father a little over a year ago. I’m working on expanding that exercise into a short story that I will then submit to literary magazines and hopefully find a home for it. It might just be the most powerful work of fiction I’ve ever written in my life–I’m not trying to boast here, but I’m simply comparing it to previous work I’ve done.

Having completed my 3 exercises for the semester, I have no more to submit, which means my 30 pages can be completely devoted to my thesis.

Teaching

My TA experience is going so well. I’m really enjoying it, and yesterday I met with another professor who has welcomed me to stay at her house one night a week so I can split the drive. Speaking of driving, I was thinking about what tires me out about it. Driving up and back (a total of 5-6 hours depending on traffic, weather, and construction), isn’t what tires me out. It’s doing so as part of a 12- to 13-hour day. I’m on campus each Monday for 6 hours.

Next term, and the following term, I’ll be on campus twice a week, but only for about an hour or two each day. That means my 13-hour day will become two 7- or 8-hour days. This is a huge difference! I’ll have to try it out to see but I think I won’t mind so much driving up and back a couple of times a week. After all, I once had a 1.5-hour commute to a job I didn’t like, and I love being in the classroom.

Besides, those hours on the road give me ample time to think about my fiction, and I’ve made some pretty important decisions on that drive.

Getting back to the classroom, I’ve had some fun opportunities to teach mini-lessons, and plan to teach a few more. I’m starting to get to know the students, which I think would have happened faster were I sitting in on every class instead of every other class, and I’m frequently and overwhelmingly impressed by them. That’s not to say I had low expectations. I didn’t have expectations. I’ve tried to go into this semester with a blank slate approach as to what to expect from students, as this was my first chance to work with college students.

I also love tutoring. There’s nothing quite like working one-on-one with a student and witnessing that a-ha moment. I’ve experienced it before, but I’ll never tire of it. I liken it to a runner’s high.

I’m also really enjoying the TA Colloquium. This is a once-weekly, no-credit class that provides an opportunity to study and discuss pedagogical theories and strategies for the Freshman composition classroom. Some of the readings are challenging–this week’s caused a grammar-related existential crisis based on a 30-year-old debate about the value and approach of teaching grammar in college–but I enjoy them all the same.

The semester is half-over so my work as a TA will continue beyond the MFA semester (it will be the opposite in the spring), and I’ve really enjoyed growing alongside the students in the class I’m observing. The professor I’m working with has gone above and beyond, even finding me that housing arrangement for the rest of the term.

Final Thoughts

There’s been a lot to reflect on today, with the MFA semester drawing down. But I’ll continue my monthly update because just because the semester is ending doesn’t mean the work stops. Here’s what’s coming up between now and my second residency week:

  • Nov. 7 is the final submission deadline for this semester.
  • Nov. 10 is the deadline to submit my work for peer review at residency.
  • Nov. 14 I should receive final feedback from my mentor.
  • Dec. 11 is the day my peers’ stories are released so I can begin preparing my critiques. It’s also the last day of the TA semester and the date my teaching portfolio is due.
  • Jan. 7 is the start of my second residency; the day my peer critiques are due (though I will have them finished before then).

Also during this time, it’s my goal to make at least one round of edits to the thesis work I’ve done. I also hope to finish my work with the short story I want to submit. You can see that even though the MFA grading period will end, the work does not. For me, that’s a good thing. It’s always best not to stop and realize I’m tired until the end.