“Doing the MFA Thing”
By Jeff Bowles
The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
When I was deciding to go back to school for an MFA, I noticed that a lot of writers—particularly those working in Science Fiction and Fantasy—looked down on the need to earn a secondary degree in what is essentially a field dominated by outsiders and formerly independent upstarts. Most successful writers have no MFA, after all. They learned to write successfully on their own. Teachers and professors need MFAs, but not writers. That’s the general feeling out there.
And I had no intention of becoming a teacher. I did, however, have a strong desire to tell stories at a higher level than I was capable of at that time. The thought of going back to school was both exciting and nausea inducing. Like many writers, I’ve got a touch of anxiety and isolationism. Meeting new people, lots of new people, it can be tricky for me. I also knew if I chose the wrong program, it’d set me back in my career rather than push me forward.
If you are considering a creative writing MFA, know there are basically two categories these kinds of programs can fall into: literary and traditional vs. everyone else. I write genre fiction. I’m a hopeless pop culture nerd and it never occurred to me to write anything else. Luckily, that made my decision much easier. Sensing correctly that most traditional master’s programs can get snobby about what and how you write, I knew I needed to place myself among like-minded people. At the time I decided to apply, the early part of 2013, there were only a few programs in the United States that specialized in genre fiction (that is to say, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, Crime; you know, the good stuff). Two of these were clear across the country, and all had a ‘low residency’ requirement, which is just another way of saying students have to live on campus a few weeks of the year.
The third program I found was a fairly new entry into what has since become a growing category of alternative MFA programs and certificates. It was also in my home state, Colorado, about 150 miles west of the little prairie town where I live with my wife. Western State Colorado University is a small but growing mountain college nestled in the Gunnison Valley, absolutely beautiful place, especially in the summer. The setting is rustic, but I’m a rural Colorado guy anyway, so it suited me just fine. Like I said, I was pretty nervous about meeting a whole new group of people, but I was hopeful in the very least that I’d come out of the program a much better writer, ready to take on the literary world in all its many serpentine manifestations.
During the two years I attended Western, I wrote an enormous amount of material, the majority of which I published. Actually, I started publishing it in the middle of my coursework, which impressed my classmates. I’d already been writing seriously for seven or eight years, and that’s kind of a stereotypical calibration mile marker at which point writers ‘stop being just okay’ and ‘start getting good’. Anyway, maybe the timing was on my side. Make no mistake, writers can be a jealous and fickle lot, and many who doubt their own abilities fall victim to popular whims and the nasty habit of clinging to others who, ehem, smell like success. That’s actually a constant in entertainment industries far and wide, so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that nastiness and in-fighting can and do occur in MFA programs.
So while I can honestly say I produced a large amount of quality (and more importantly, saleable) work, the sum total of the experience was perhaps not exactly what I expected. For one, if you find that you’re a bit of a loner—as many authors are—you may consider other avenues. The notion of community is indeed important, but in programs such as these, group dynamics are a factor. You may experience interpersonal drama as the natural course. Heck, you may even participate in it. Some people think competition is good, that it breeds character, dedication, and an overall positive, can-do attitude. I don’t agree. I think it usually brings out the worst in people. The problem is that folks get into the mindset there is only so much success to go around, a grand lie if there ever was one. And really, a high-stress creative environment can only exacerbate insecurities, anxiety, and small-minded thinking. It’s entirely possible you’ll experience nothing of the sort during your time at an MFA, but then again, you may find yourself crawling through a big stinking pile of it.
The other thing worth mentioning is that if you as a writer are prone to overwork or burnout, you may consider getting a certificate or simply attending a really good writing workshop or two. There are plenty of those to go around, and they don’t require tens of thousands of dollar to attend, either. I wouldn’t trade my time at Western for anything. Really, I wouldn’t. The experiences I had, the people I met (even the ones I ended up disagreeing with), shaped me in unexpected ways. Pressure cooker situations can make you better at what you do, but they can also cause a slowdown or even complete stoppage of your natural creative drive. Ultimately, this is what happened to me, though luckily, writer’s block is perfectly surmountable given enough time and patience.
As I’m sure you well know, creative writing can be pretty difficult, especially when we as writers are put into situations or contracts under which we’re required to maintain constant output. But writing isn’t like most other creative professions, in that it doesn’t just require your creativity and imagination, but also your intellect and higher reasoning skills. To string one word after another, continuously, until a fully realized narrative emerges, that’s pretty hardcore, right? So again, if you are prone to periods of overwork or burnout, if you make a habit of pushing yourself too hard or of not being forgiving or gentle enough to allow yourself time to recoup your creative energy, an MFA may not be for you.
Yes, you can teach with one, and that may be the most useful outcome. Not every writer wants to teach. In fact, I think most don’t. But if you’ve been doing this a while, I’m sure you’ve also recognized the very real truth that superstar authors are few and far between, and even fewer simply got lucky on their paths, as opposed to agonizing over their craft for years and years before anyone showed even the slightest interest. So to teach or not to teach? Well, a paycheck is better than an empty bank account under any circumstance, and since reality is (unfortunately) rather persistent, you may find you need to pay some bills before your incredible new urban fantasy novel sees the light of day.
At the time I attended Western State, the school’s Genre Fiction program was still pretty new, and as such, the faculty still had a few things to iron out. This led to an uneven learning experience at times, but as far as a basic academic progress went, I always felt satisfied. Some of my classmates had a bad habit of complaining about certain aspects of our coursework, but I was always of the opinion that you get out what you put in. In other words, I never even bothered second-guessing individual assignments or their value. I simply treated them as writing challenges, opportunities for me to have fun and excel. And I loved to write, so I committed myself to telling the best stories I could, and at least in the short term, it paid off for me.
One thing is certain, if you go into an intense learning environment with a bad attitude, you’re already behind the eight ball. I had a great attitude, though my somewhat imbalanced mental health picture (at the time I suffered from some pretty bad depression) set me apart from my classmates, in that I occasionally needed extra help and time in order to get my work done. My teachers were more than willing to accommodate me, and thanks to them, I graduated on time and with (mostly) straight A’s. I used that lovely piece of frameable paper to bounce myself into some editing and freelance work, but if I’m being honest, sustained productivity become an issue after that. Perhaps I was just dog tired. Can you really blame me?
When all is said and done, the choice to pursue an MFA comes down to what you value and what you think you can accomplish on your own. An intense, focused experience like this can make you a better writer. I know it made me better. But it’s also true that you can get better on your own, through dedication, persistence, and a healthy work ethic. I think I was open and ready for something that allowed me to hone my abilities in a safe, nurturing, and output-driven environment. I’d like to thank all the faculty and staff at Western State Colorado University for their generosity of spirit and willingness to pass on their considerable knowledge and expertise. Don’t forget, folks, this is your story. Tell it how you want to sell it!
Until next time!
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I might be a writer, but I’m also a teacher. Ever since I took my first class – ballet, age 3 – I wanted to teach. I taught my dolls whatever I learned. I taught my maternal grandmother. Beneath the expert tutelage of a child age 5, she learned yoga, tap, jazz, and Spanish. I contribute a lot of my success in Spanish (as in, I passed) to the hours spent teaching it to her. Teaching was what I wanted to do.
I went to college for elementary education. I imagined a classroom of eager faces mirroring my grandmother’s. We would do the best projects and everyone would love learning. I walked in with my arms filled with my favorite books, materials for astronomy models, and a skip in my step.
Instead, I was faced with mandatory testing and parents angry that their child had homework on the night when they watch reality TV. After college, I switched to teaching young adults in a collegial setting. I fell in love with teaching all over again. They were eager to learn. (Well, most of them.) I didn’t have to deal with parents who used foul language while screaming at their kid for using the same foul language. There weren’t days spent learning how to pass a mandatory test instead of mastering the material. Anyway, I digress…
I went from teaching adults at a local community college to teaching adults for a financial institute. On the side, I started teaching classes in one of my passions: writing. Libraries in the area were willing to give me time on weekends or weeknights to teach writing to anyone who wanted to come, free of charge. The classes ranged from general writing tips to fantasy-specific discussions to how to get published.
Still today, even though I’m no longer teaching as a day job, I lead classes at local libraries. The classes are always small and intimate – five people to ten. This gives us the opportunity to have one-on-one discussions and to have the attendees share selections of writing for feedback. Most recently, in August, I got to teach a two-part fantasy workshop to youth for a library summer program. The ideas they came up with were complex and original. They weren’t afraid to write out of the box.
The best part about teaching a writing class is observing the passion in everyone’s face. Whereas my grandmother’s passion came from helping me better myself, these students have a passion for the written word, and I’ll do anything I can to help them expand that passion.
Jordan Elizabeth is a young adult fantasy author. If you’re a teacher or librarian, she would love to talk to you about leading a workshop or giving a presentation. You can connect with Jordan via her website, JordanElizabethBooks.com.
Time. It fascinates us, captures our imaginations with the possibilities of time and time travel, so much so that our literature and the entertainment industry are filled with stories and songs which follow that theme. There have been countless movies on the subject: the Back to the Future series; Time Cop; The Terminator; Groundhog Day; Planet of the Apes; Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey; The Butterfly Effect; Land Before Time; and Timestalkers, to name a few. And of course, television series: Dr. Who; Quantum Leap; Sliders; Time After Time; Outlanders – not to mention series with one or more episodes that involve time travel. Books and stories about time travel include: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain; The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells; Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving; A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens; “The Langoliers”, by Stephen King (Four Past Midnight); Timeline, by Michael Crichton; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowlings; The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger; and more recently, All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai. Even the music industry has gotten in on the theme: Fleetwood Mac can’t stop thinking about tomorrow; Tim McGraw deals with it in segments, so he only worries about the next thirty years; Bad Company is ready for love and figures better things are bound to happen looking forward; Jim Croche wants to save it in a bottle; Cindy Lauper comments on the repetitiveness of it, as things tend to happen time after time; and Stevie Nicks would do it all again, even though it’s not always a breeze. These lists don’t even scratch the surface. So, why is it that time so fascinates us?
I had a little Australian Shepherd named Dorchester. I got her when she was a pup. When she was young, she was agile and fast. Man, was she fast. She could smoke both the male Blue Heelers she grew up with to get a Frisbee. Then, she’d run off with it and wouldn’t give it back. She never was much for playing by the rules. But, as she got older, of course, she slowed. Age affects dogs in many of the same ways that it affects people: it gets harder to get up and down; movement is slower, more careful; the senses are not as accute as they once were, etc… Dorchester began to lose her eyesight first, even before her she lost her speed and her agility, so I had to become her seeing eye person. I began carrying a walking stick on our walks, thunking it down firmly on the ground with each step I took, so that she could hear where I was and follow. We walked this way for several years until eventually she was no longer able to go on walks with me anymore due to poor eyesight and other effects of aging.
Dorchester isn’t with me anymore, but I still go on walks with both of the Heelers. We all walk a little slower these days. Our walks are shorter and there’s not a lot of rabbit chasing anymore, but they are are enjoyed, never the less. My son’s dog, Zaar, was Dorchester’s mate. They were the same age, each joining our family at about the same time. As Zaar ages, he is not only losing his sight, but his hearing, as well. He is very frightened of thunder and storms always gave him major anxiety attacks, so his not being able to hear so good hasn’t been a totally bad thing, but it does pose new problems on our walks. Zaar grew up walking on our property, so he thinks he knows where he’s going and doesn’t always pay attention to where his walking companions are headed. He gets into ‘the zone’, nose up, sniffing th air, and no matter how loud I yell, he doesn’t hear me, causing me to have to chase after him, touching him to get his attention and get him back on track. Zaar was also raised around a Heeler who was deaf, so he learned hand signs and once I have his attention, he will follow, but it’s getting his attention that’s the trick.
The exercise he gets from his walks is what keeps him healthy and mobile. As I watch him getting older, I feel a sense of urgency, knowing that time may be running short for our walks and I want to enjoy my time with him while I can. I guess I just don’t know how to be a seeing eye person for a dog that can’t hear. He doesn’t hear my stick. I must figure out how to adapt and rise to the challenge, because left to his own devices, Zaar would soon be lost, especially after dusk, when his eyesight is at its poorest. It seems none of us are as young as we used to be.
It’s easy to look back and see what we’ve lost. ‘Hindsight is better than foresight’, and all that. Looking to the past, all our regrets become vividly obvious, but we tend to embellish the good times, as well. I think happy moments may be remembered as euphoric, more so than what they actually were, because those are the times we wish to hold onto. When I look back, there’s a dividing line to my timeline, seperating my life before my teenaged son died, and post-death, signifying the time when he was no longer in my life. That’s my loss. The time when Mike was alive seems brighter, more vivid in my memories. He was my biggest fan, with aspirations and the ability to be a writer himself. He was a unique soul and a source of inspiration for me.
These days, I feel a sense of urgency to make this writing for a living thing work while I still have time to do so. I have certainly taken enough time making it happen. I was 52 when I finally earned my M.F.A. and 53 before I became a published author. I’m sure I have some good years left, but I have to wonder if there will be enough for me to realize my dream. I wish I could go back in time and do things differently, but of course that’s only possible in my fiction.
Now, with time travel, there’s the possiblity of doing things over, making things turn out different. Granted, it doesn’t usually turn out well when you go messing around with time, but things can, on occasion turn out better. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at MY time travel short, Last Call. Things aren’t going good for Derek, but he finds a way to make his life better. Maybe I could go back and get started on this career path a lot earlier in life. That’s not Derek’s solution, but it could work.
I don’t live in Derek’s world and there is no Last Call bar for me. I know I can’t just sit back and wait for things to happen, so if I want to reach my dreams while I’m still alive to see it, I have to take action. I must market what I already have published, but even more importantly, I must keep writing. So, my plan is to just keep at it. Eventually, my efforts will pay off. I have to believe that.
So what if I didn’t earn my M.F.A. until I was 52 and wasn’t published until I was 53? I’m not the only one to get a late start on their dream. After all, according to an inspirational Facebook post by Karen Caron, Stan Lee’s first big comic came out at age 40, Morgan Freeman had his first major movie role at age 52, and Julia Child didn’t make her cooking show debut until age 51. That puts me in some pretty good company.
Young or old, all we can do is look to the future. (There’s that time thing again.)
With that in mind, I’ve begun the writing and compilation of my memoir about my son’s life and death, finally, after nine years. I’ve decided that it’s time to reunite the two time periods that divide my life and my thinking. After his death, I wrote poems and stories about him, pouring my grief out onto the page. I compiled all the photos of him into a slideshow for his memorial dinner. In addition to that, I plan to contact some of Mike’s friends and request them to contribute writings of their own about who Mike was for them. It’s going to be a massive amount of work, but his story deserves to be told and there is no one else who can tell it. It will be my first non-fiction work of book length.
I’ve always said that I never have less than three works in progress. Michael: How my son became a teen suicide statistic, will make the third one, as I’m also writing the first draft of the sequel to my western novel, Delilah: The Homecoming and I’m revising the first book in my science fantasy Playground for the Gods series, The Great Primordial Battle. Writing is an integral part of my life, past, present and future. I may be an old woman, but there is no other direction in which my life can go. Mike would be proud of my accomplishments so far and I think he would be glad that his story will finally be out. After nine years, it’s about time.
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When I write contemporary young adult stories, I draw on my own experiences growing up. A huge part of my childhood involved wearing Converse sneakers. Okay, you’re probably thinking that’s a sad childhood, but bear with me. I was always obsessed with shoes. I liked the old-fashioned ankle-boot style. I liked the shiny Mary Janes. I hated regular sneakers. They weren’t cute enough. I endured sneakers only for gym class.
In Junior High, I started seeing the other children wearing Converse sneakers. They came in all sorts of patterns and colors, and they went over your ankle. They were unique, and even though almost everyone had a pair, everyone had a DIFFERENT pair. Some kids even wore mismatched sneakers or used fancy laces. I went home to tell my grandmother I just had to have my own Converse sneakers. (If you aren’t familiar with Converse sneakers, you have got to check out their incredible selection.)
She took me to the coolest sneaker store in the mall (I don’t remember the name of this wicked awesome store) and got me…a pair of knock-offs. They were black and came below my ankle. I fell in love with them because they had a side-pocket. I wore those sneakers until they fell apart.
In the meantime, my grandmother and I went to the nearby outlet mall. We would go once or twice a year. At their shoe store, I saw a beautiful array of colorful Converse sneakers. She bought be an official, high-top pair. They were black with white pinstripes. I wore them so much they started to fall apart…so now I don’t wear them much to preserve their life.
After that, I got a pair each time we went to the outlet mall. I even got a pair that reached up to my thighs! I now have twelve pairs altogether in my collection. Converse is still my favorite brand of sneaker.
Why am I talking to you about my Converse obsession? Well, Converse sneakers were a huge part of my childhood, from shopping for them to wearing them almost every day. I loved wearing them to gym class with fishnet stockings. I always write about my young adults wearing Converse because that’s what I wore. I didn’t realize how prevalent the brand featured in my writing until an editor called it to my attention. I went back through my writing and almost every girl character has a pair at one point in their individual stories!
If you were writing about shoes, what shoes would you mention? What shoes are most important in your life?
Jordan Elizabeth is a young adult fantasy author. Her latest book, a post-apocalyptic novella entitled ROTHAM RACE, released July 14th fron CHBB. If you’re wondering if it features Converse sneakers, you will have to read it to find out.
You can connect with Jordan via her website, JordanElizabethBooks.com.