There was drama yesterday in the twitterverse about an organization that offers to help writers with the MFA application process—for $335. The virtual feathers flew! I went over to the website to see what all the noise was about. My take: I don’t think it’s a good idea to pay someone to whip your writing sample into shape for your application. I am not saying that you shouldn’t have someone look it over and accept feedback, but I do not encourage you to hire an MFA expert. Here’s why.
You want to find an MFA program that’s right for you, and your work. Abramson Leslie Consulting highlights the fact that all of their consultants are graduates from Iowa Writers Workshop. As many people know, this program is thought to be the best in the country. Whether it is the best or not, it is not the only program in the country and it may not be the right program for you. (Sandra Cisneros said she hated it.) You need to let your work find a good home for itself; if that is Iowa, so be it. If it’s not, that’s cool, too.
I think of this like love. Let’s say that someone offered to make you over in such a way that would lead to you being attractive to a Certain Person. Let’s say for the sake of this post, that this was even possible. So, once you have been accepted by the Certain Person is it going to be a good match, really? When you take off the wig and the mask? When you start speaking in your real accent? You need to be in a program that wants to work with you in your true voice. If the way you WRITE isn’t accepted by a particular program, do you think YOU will be accepted?
This is not to be naïve. I know that there are benefits to having the right pedigree. I am not one to downplay privilege and benefits. And yes, it never hurts to be associated with a hard-core hegemonic institution like the Iowa Writers Workshop. I have been to Bread Loaf and it seems that nearly everyone crossed paths before at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Iowa, etc. (However, I think this is as much a matter of socio-economic class than the pull of the actual institutions.)
This said, let us not lose fact that the MFA is an educational process. I got my MFA at Arizona State University—not exactly a name-droppy place. But I learned so much studying with Ron Carlson. I won’t say he made me a writer, but he helped me take my work to the next level and I will be grateful to him for the rest of my life. ASU was the right program for me. I don’t know if I would have written the book I wrote had I been at Iowa or Columbia or Wherever the Hell. (I was a Ph.D. student at The University of Iowa for three years in the early nineties and I can say, unequivocally, that those were the very worst years of my life. Just writing this has made me upset. Seriously. It may cost me my writing day.)
But to get back to my original point, don’t pay someone to help you fit into the mold of a particular program. If you want to go to school, get your team together and let them vet your manuscript. Pick a school because you want to work with their faculty. Choose a part of the country that won’t leave you isolated and depressed. (Ask me about trying to get my hair done in Iowa City. Ask me about trying to go on a date.) Go somewhere where you are wanted, where the faculty shows enthusiasm for you and your work. Talk to students at the school and see if you dig them. You want to go somewhere where you will be nourished as person, which will noursish you as a writer.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think that my sanity is worth so much more than to be able to coo over cocktails, “When I was in the Workshop….”
Today I ran across this interesting article about Jennifer Weiner’s dust-up with a bookstore in Boston. Apparently, the bookstore owners asked her to give a reading without any curse words. It’s not like Jennifer is Richard Pryor. Her work reflects a sort of average diction. The work “fuck” comes up here or there, but not generally as a transitive verb—if you know what I mean. Anyway, Jennifer is now #1 on the NYT list, so obvs this didn’t hurt her, but it’s still something worth blogging about. I was once told to tone down the language. It took place at the public library in Phoenix. I won’t say that I was scarred for life by the incident, but I still remember the moment.
If you know my work, you’ll know that there are probably a grand total of seventeen curse words in my whole oeuvre. But about three of them occur in one of my favorite readings from The Untelling. I am speaking of the scene when the girls come home to find their crazy mom has locked them out of the house. The rebellious older sister curses up a tiny storm over this. But, I like to read the scene because it has a lot of dialogue and it’s kinda funny.
After I read this scene, a woman raised her hand. “Why did you put so many curse words in your book. Are you that kind of person or did your editor force you to be obscene to try and sell a book?” I was shocked. Obscene? A little naughty, maybe.. but obscene?
Despite the fact that I knew I wasn’t in the wrong, I felt oddly ashamed. The closest I can come to describing it is to say that I felt the way you do when you are all dressed up looking cute and someone tells you that you are showing too much cleavage or your dress is too short. I use this example because her criticism felt very gendered. I have been to so many readings by men who curse like they invented profanity. But when it comes to women writers, people are way more likely to try and make you reign it in.
After that experience at the library, I started feeling weird reading that section. I often ask my host before I go on the mike, “Is this place conservative? Can I say ‘fuck’ here?” That one woman in Phoenix with her bitter-orange complexion hsd given me a complex. She somehow tapped into the residue of my conservative southern upbringing. I spent so much of my life trying not to be a pretty little girl, living in pretty little box, and I had let a judgemental stranger stuff me back in.
About a year or two ago, I gave a reading in Atlanta. For the theme of the reading, it made sense to read the scene when Aria gets into a fight with her crack-addict neighbor in the front yard. And, you can bet there’s some spicy language there. I started my worrying about saying “motherfucker” in a public place and a friend said, “Listen. They invited you here as a writer. They didn’t ask you here to be a nice girl.” He was right. If I am woman enough to write the book, I am woman enough to read it out loud.
I have heard back from many of the members of Team T and now it’s time to figure out what to do with their feedback. This is something that lots of writers deal with, particularly those who work in workshop settings. Of course, the big difference between Team T and a typical workshop is that I had the luxury of choosing the members of Team T and there is no one on the team whose opinions I don’t value. Below is a sort of guide to how I process feedback. (It’s applicable to the workshop setting if you first weed out the people who you don’t value.)
Thank Everyone. Reading a manuscript well is hard work. Even if you aren’t thrilled with the comments, you must be thankful that someone took the time to read the draft and give considered feedback. In a workshop class, you can just thank the people after the session, or you can catch them by the vending machine. This step is just a matter of courtesy; it also puts you in the proper frame of mind as you read through the comments. These folks have done you a favor. Go forth with gratitude.
Read through the responses one team member at a time. Take each reader’s comments separately. Read through with a highlighter, marking things that may seem important to you. Make notes in the margin. Don’t start fooling with the manuscript yet.
Fix the things that you immediately agree need fixing. Inconsistencies, confusing transitions, stuff like that. Go in and clean all that mess up. If a reader says “I was confused” by this or that thing, you just get in there and make it clear. It’s not sexy work, but it has to get done.
Look for similarities in the comments. If everyone in the bunch is weirded out by chapter four, it’s probably not working—I don’t care how much you like it. I would give consideration to something that struck two out of three readers. Three out of five, you must address it. Remember, you picked your team because you value their opinions.
Listen as much to the vibe of the comment as much to the specifics of it. Readers can sometimes be like patients in the dentist’s chair. Just last year, I was convinced that a certain tooth was killing me. Well, I was correct that something was really amiss, but I was wrong about which tooth. The dentist (God bless her) was able to listen to my complaint and figure out which tooth needed drilling. Sometimes you have to be like that. A very good reader can point out that there’s a problem, but she may be dead wrong about how to fix it.
When you love something that one of your readers hates, sit with it a while. You may be able to split the difference and improve the work. You may decide to respectfully disagree, but you have to think it over. One of my readers had an issue with the novel, that I didn’t think was important, but after sitting on it a while, I incorporated some of her suggestion. But let me tell you, my first reaction was to go all Amy Winehouse, “No, no, no.”
It’s fine to ask the readers for more feedback. I know that under the workshop model, you have to sit silently while you work is discussed, but once the workshop is over you can certainly ask for more feedback. If one of my readers comments on something and no one else mentions it, I may ask one of the other readers what she thinks. I may even go back to the person who made the original comment and ask more questions.
Thank everyone again. And get to work.
Remember last summer when this blog ran a series called Cocktails With Writers? Well two writers featured in that series have fabulous news which I am delighted to share!
CARLEEN BRICE has just been told that her novel, Orange Mint and Honey, will be made into a movie for the Lifetime network! You can read about her novel, and see her recipe for Orange Mint Mojitos! (It IS summer, you know.)
KELLY MCMASTERS has just gotten the Oprah seal of approval! Her book, Welcome To Shirley: A Memoir of An Atomic Town, tops Oprah’s list of “addictive non-fiction.” Read about Kelly’s book here, but try her recipe for Long Island Iced Tea for at your own risk!
Only 53. Goodbye to a trail blazer.