Sunday, June 2, 2013

I Don't Need Your MFA

As an undergraduate I often felt the need to choose between what I wanted to do and what I needed to do. But these days I'm starting to doubt the necessity of reading until my eyes bleed in order to satisfy a core requirement. I recently had a startling discovery about myself: I don't like reading novels. WHAT!?! But I was an English major! But I used to read a lot on my own... didn't I? As I think back I can't remember a single time when I read a novel from self motivation and genuinely enjoyed it. Well, shit. Who the hell am I if I don't like reading? But that isn't true. I love reading graphic novels, plays, and nonfiction. I'm really drawn to dialogue in fiction. It's that fluffy 8 page description of the main character's left shoe shit I can't stand. This is also why I tend to fall asleep during action movies at the point where the plot abruptly comes to a halt for 20 minutes of violence and special effects. 

I've been really into the John Holt philosophy lately that theorizes that compulsory schooling changes your personality. It seems to be true for me to some extent, though I've always been resistant. I've been complaining about how the education system wasn't designed with me in mind for at least a decade (you know you're old when you can say this). I now realize that it isn't constructed to benefit anyone because we are not supposed to learn by burying our faces in a poorly written textbook the night before an exam only to forget nearly everything a couple weeks later. 

I knew I wanted to be a writer since I could manage to scribble my name down, but I never felt like I had the time to commit to it until now. Let me remind you that I have an infant son who I can't be away from for longer than a couple hours at a time and THIS is the point where I feel like I finally have the time to commit to my craft. So let's pretend I said 'school sucks' in an edgy and original way. The lack of a challenge (let's face it, getting an undergraduate degree in liberal arts is a joke) paired with the unbearable thought that life was slipping by while I wasn't getting any closer to reaching my goals was more than a bit depressing. 

As I have been researching playwriting and theatre stuff I see a lot of advice along the lines of, "if you're serious about it then you need to pour all your time and money into an MFA (preferably mine, personal checks are accepted)." Something about this seemed a little fishy to me. Probably the discourse of necessity which incites desperation. Ay dios mio! How will I ever be a writer without this utterly expensive degree which affords me the opportunity to write 4 or more plays in 3 years? And (gasp) I get an internship too! Like, real job experience! What a deal!

What can you do in 2 to 3 years? Develop a self sufficient writing habit for one. I don't know about anyone else but writing for a grade doesn't exactly ignite passion for my work, or in my work for that matter. And then I'm writing more now than I did when I was taking writing classes since I don't have to spend all that time on the bullshit assignments and I can focus on what works for me. I can also read whatever I want. I no longer have to complain about reading some pointless book or how expensive textbooks can be since they're free with my library card. 

But how in the world will I ever get anything published/produced without a mentor holding my hand? Well, imaginary reader, one thing is to submit to things constantly. This means a lot of rejections, which can be discouraging. But keep in mind that rejections don't necessarily mean that your work sucks. It just isn't what they were looking for. Perhaps your poem about pretzel bread doesn't really fit in with a knitting magazine's poetry contest. But you can't just wait for someone else to hand your destiny to you. How about you round up your acting friends, get a permit from the park district, and put on your play in the park? Now look at that, you've got something to put on your resume. You can turn that 10 minute play into a short film on YouTube. For prose writers why don't you try self-publishing through POD or E-books (more about this to come)? Also, ahem, blogging regularly and connecting via other social networking sites could help. 

Why isn't homeschooling for higher education considered valid? Seriously. Why do we need a lousy piece of paper to certify that we are learned in some topic? I think the answer is that we don't. Would you rather hire someone with a degree or with 4 years of work experience in your industry? The answer is going to be work experience. Every time. While a student at an institution is boasting about their fancy curriculum a self motivated individual is out there getting real experience. So, institutions of higher education, I don't need your MFA! I can do this myself, thank you. With a curriculum that is catered to me personally and guess what? It's totally free. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

5 Tips for Receiving Criticism at a Writer's Group

1. General Preparation. Be sure to bring something to take notes with. Print off a clean copy of your work. Bring an extra folder for everyone else's notes for you. 

2. Identify Weaknesses. What do you think the weaknesses are in your draft? Why don't you ask others to review these aspects in particular? I know it's counter-intuitive to point out your weaknesses to others but it's the only way to ensure that you'll improve on them. Also, if you let your group know ahead of time what you think your problems are then they might not feel the need to be abrasive when advising you. And you will know what they're going to criticize ahead of time which might make the bad news not seem so bad. 

3. Take Notes. This depends a bit on your learning style. For me it helps to take a lot of notes no matter how stupid the suggestions might sound. It helps me focus on filtering ideas later during my first major revision. Plus sometimes ideas grow on you. If taking notes isn't your thing and you don't have ridiculous memory then maybe you could do an audio recording instead. 

4. Shut up. If your writing group doesn't have a silence policy then I would recommend keeping your defensive explanations of your work to a minimum. These will skew others' perspective of your work and your feedback will be inaccurate. Think of it this way; if you had a published work, you wouldn't be able to go around explaining what you mean to everyone all the time. 

5. Debriefing. Immediately after you receive criticism on your work reserve some time to do some journaling/freewriting about your reaction. Blow off some steam. Express yourself. Try to gather your thoughts on revision and jot down notes that you didn't get a chance to during the meeting.

Recommended Reading:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Using Criticism to Foster Growth

The most difficult challenge for a writer isn't putting words on the page but taking them off again. When inspiration strikes and we get into that rhythm of key strokes and all the words seem to flow so smoothly we become attached to that piece of writing. It becomes our child to be nurtured gently. Add a word here. Take one out there. We reread the passage over and over smirking at our genius. This, this will certainly be in the Norton Anthology for American Literature in the next 5...maybe 10 years. Before you get too cozy next to Mark Twain, I have some bad news. All first drafts are shitty.

In case you are confused, it's right here.
When I was a member of a writer's group it would always frustrate me when I'd spend the time reading and analyzing someone else's work for hours just to see them grimace with the slightest suggestion that their work was anything less than perfect. Well, why would you even submit it if all you wanted was a pat on the back? I suppose I was being naive to think that these people actually wanted to get better at writing. Let me just say, there were some people there who I really respected and I thought contributed a lot to our meetings, like my friend Ali (hi!). But for the most part I think our members were too afraid to take any real risks with their writing i.e. using backspace. 

I remember one guy in particular that REALLY pissed me off. Maybe you know the type. Refused to listen to anyone's constructive criticism. Permanent pretentious smirk pasted onto his stupid face. Said things like, "You just don't understand." Sure, sometimes people aren't going to get it. But if no one gets it then there's probably something you need to work on; such as the fact that there are more adjectives than nouns which makes it read like a jumbled thesaurus. Oh and then he says how he wants to write for The New Yorker. Yeah, very ambitious. I can respect that. However, there's no way you're getting there if you think that every single word that's vomited from your holier than thou gullet is made of puppies and unicorns....

I'm going to my room to surf reddit forever. 
As I criticize this guy for his facade I pretend like I don't have one of my own. I wrote this creative nonfiction piece about a very devastating, tumultuous time in my life. However, since most of the work that we read in my group was fiction everyone just assumed that mine was too. So there I sat listening to my peers dissect the main character (me) saying she's "fragile" and "misguided." It was really weird. On one front my writing was being torn apart and on the other end it was a personal attack. I got this sickening feeling that started in the pit of my stomach and radiated distally. And I was stone faced. Trying not to flush or sweat. It didn't work.

It's so hard to sit at a writer's group and listen to people pulverize something that you poured your heart and soul into. We're taking a risk and becoming vulnerable to a potentially hostile audience and if we're hurt then we're much less likely to take the same risk again. The thing is, how are we supposed to grow as writers and as human beings if we never take any risks? Isn't it the free nature of art and creative writing (or anything really) that draws us to these fields? Aren't we limiting ourselves if we don't explore new ideas?

Often times we feel like the person offering the criticism doesn't understand or is preventing us from being ourselves. I would not give people enough credit to figure me out, since I'm clearly a warm and gooey homemade cookie crafted from the heart in a room full of Chips Ahoy. We want to believe that we are original. And sometimes we are. But we need to cut back on the defense mechanisms and start seeing criticism for what it is: an opportunity for growth.

The beginning of something beautiful.
In an attempt to be concise, I've deleted something like 750 words worth of sentences that dance around ideas that I'm trying to relay. I'm admittedly a little rusty from months where the only time I'd write was when I needed to make a grocery list. This isn't stopping me though. I'm ready to grow and learn new rhetorical tricks and maybe discover new things about myself and the intricacies of human nature. I'm going to write until I hit something really truthful and important. I'm writing because it's what I love and it's what I was born to do. The fear of failure and disapproval will no longer deter me. In fact, bring on the failure! Because in the end it will only make me better.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Explorations of a Scoundrel Husband: Part One

"What's wrong?" His breath sour. Her face of stone. Her hollow eyes penetrating him as he finally manages to lock the door behind him. Am I late? Did I forget something? Her birthday isn't til July... She knows. Does she smell the sex or cheap perfume or motel soap? Does she see the guilt in my eyes? On my face? In my hair and body language? Honey, I love you. Honey, I think there's something wrong. I'm not happy. I need help. I need you. Honey, it didn't mean anything. I'm sorry. I don't know where I'd be without you. Honey you mean the world to me and those eyes! They were so beautiful. Compassionate. Vibrant! But now... Tell me what's wrong! You used to come to me and you'd cry in my arms and I'd listen when you needed it and make a stupid joke and you'd smile and it's the most beautiful thing and I don't want to believe it's gone. Now you come home on the phone with one of your girlfriends. You make dinner. We eat in silence with intermittent grunting amounting to something like, "did you take the trash out?" Honey, where did the romance go? What happened to forever? Is this true love or is it--

"Nothing, I'm going to bed."

"Oh...okay. Good night." 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Completeness at Theater Wit

Chris and I went for a VERY long journey into Chicago down 290 which included a sing-along where he found his voice. Call me crazy but I find the tail lights, honking, and darting between lanes to be kinda charming. However, I probably only think this because I wasn't the one driving and wasn't particularly stressed out about being late. If I was on my way to an interview or something I would probably be laying on the horn screaming, "YOU PIG FUCKER!" 

Theater Wit 

First of all we loved Theater Wit. We got there about 5 minutes late and they let us in during a set change, which I thought was nice. They had a bar with quirky drinks. Their hot apple cider was awesome. The valet parking was also very convenient and only $10. 


Since I'm a playwright most of my criticisms are for the writing of the play. Even though we missed the first scene, within 5 to 10 minutes it was pretty clear what we had missed. The dialogue was amusing but there were a lot of long monologues that didn't really contribute anything to character development or further the plot (at least not after the first 3 minutes anyway). I felt that the character development was so-so and I didn't really care about what happened to them even though I was supposed to. I felt there were some serious flaws with the pacing and flow of the play that also contributed to this indifference about our protagonists' fate. Anyway, the acting seemed to be pretty good. The theater was intimate. I liked the set design, it was simple which put the focus on the characters, good for a character driven plot. There was a technical difficulty towards the end of the play which I think kind of threw the actors off in the final scene. 


I wouldn't see this particular play again, nor would I strongly recommend it to anyone. However, I would certainly return to Theater Wit to see other productions. It was a good night out. My fiance isn't a huge fan of theater but this experience has helped change his mind.