Writing after the MFA: The Book

Now What MFA Guide

Yeah. Now what?

After I graduated from my MFA program in 2011, I wrote about how it can be a struggle to keep writing after getting a Masters of Fine Arts degree in fiction: you leave a ready-made community of writers and a system of built-in deadlines and head back out into the world, where life is waiting in the shadows, twirling its proverbial mustache and rubbing its hands together with wicked glee, just waiting to get in the way of your good writing habits.

So what do you do? I’ve tried to answer that question for myself on this blog a few times, but now I can share a project I’ve been working on with several other writers, which answers the question in much greater depth.

Allow me to introduce Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success after the MFA. It’s a non-fiction book containing essays by 46 contributors who all attempt to answer that very question: Now what?

The book’s electronic edition is being launched this very evening at the AWP conference, so if you’re out in Seattle right now, you should definitely head to the swanky launch party at the Seattle Art Museum tonight at 6:30 p.m. I won’t be there — I’m too close to my due date for travel —  but all sorts of fun people who are still allowed to drink will in attendance.

I worked as a chapter editor on this book for a little more than a year, so I can say with authority (because I’ve read my two chapters over and over and discussed other chapters with other editors) that although the book is aimed at MFA grads, you don’t need to be one to benefit from the book.

There are essays about finding agents, about the publishing industry, about working with writing groups and there’s one chapter, which I think will be very popular because it addresses the question of how to make ends meet while working on your masterpiece.

Definitely check it out if you’re at AWP this week. (I mean, there’s a party and you’re right there – why wouldn’t you go?) If you’re not there, check it out on Amazon, and if you’re more interested in a physical book, no worries; the paperback edition will be released in July. (Did I mention that the book also includes an article about e-books vs. physical books? Guess who contributed that one.)


Reading on Enders Island.

Fairfield MFA

Reading today at Enders Island. If it looks like I’m on an altar, that’s because I am. Enders is a religious retreat, hence the cross and pulpit and stained glass. There’s also a relic in that church, but that’s another story entirely.

I’m back from my MFA program’s alumni day, which welcomes alums back to Enders Island for a meal and a hangout and allows us to attend a seminar and pretend that we’re still in school. Today I took a poetry seminar. I’m not a poet, but the teacher of the seminar I took is Baron Wormser, and he’s incredible, as you’d expect a poet laureate of Maine to be.  I’ve now taken two of his seminars, and just like the first seminar I took with him, this one – which explored argument in poetry – simultaneously inspired me and made my brain hurt.

The administration also very graciously allows us alumni authors to come back and read from our work during a special reading period, which is followed by a group book signing. I didn’t expect to be invited as a reader this residency, since I read last residency, but I was delighted to be invited back to the island to read alongside novelist Chris Belden and poet Colin Halloran.  Being a part of that line-up is no joke.

It’s also really cool for me for another reason: although I read primarily from Beware the Hawk, I was also able to read a taster from the upcoming book, The Eagle and the Arrow. One of the beautiful things about being part of the Fairfield MFA program is that it’s a safe place to share new work, and all three of us did that.

My husband was on camera duty for the reading, and I’m posting the fruits of his labors on my Facebook page. We had some technical difficulties with the lens, but he managed to get photos of the other readers as well. Feel free to visit, like the photos, comment, tag yourself and whatnot.

Reading next Monday at Barnes & Noble in Stamford Town Center.

Hello everybody!

This is a reminder that I am going to be appearing at a bookstore near you. Well, if you live in Stamford, Connecticut, that is. And I sincerely hope you do, because next Monday, at 8 p.m., I will be the featured reader at poetry night at the Barnes & Noble in the Stamford Town Center.* I will be reading from Beware the Hawk. 
This is a big deal for me, because I used to report the news in Stamford and I was there all the time. I covered the schools there. I spent a lot of time in municipal meetings. I remember when that Barnes & Noble was a hole in the ground. Literally. It (and most of the  recent downtown development) was a hole, and there was a lot of argument in city meetings about it. That Barnes & Noble and I go way back.

Anyhow, I’m really looking forward to being in Stamford next week. I will have a bunch of books for sale as well. I’m also working on some other appearances in Connecticut and one in Massachusetts as well. I will keep you all posted on those.
Hope to see you next week.

I’d also like to encourage you all to keep voting on the name of the protagonist in Beware the Hawk. Voting is open until August 19, so vote as often as you’d like.

I have to apologize for being MIA lately, but I’ve been running crazy this month. I will be back soon with more announcements and posts.

* Much thanks to poet and fellow MFAer Nicholas Miele, who helped me set this up.

Reading in Mystic tomorrow – with some very impressive writers.

Tomorrow, at 4 p.m. on Enders Island at Mystic, I’m giving a reading with three of my published fellow Fairfield University MFA alumni. Each of them has achieved a huge career milestone this year. And when I talk about “huge,” I mean Godzilla-huge.

Our line-up tomorrow almost sounds like a joke: “So a HarpersCollins memoirist, a Oprah-endorsed writer and the inventor of a poetic form walk into a reading.”

What’s the punchline? That I get to join them up there. Me and Beware the Hawk are joining this trio!

Allow me to introduce them:

David Fitzpatrick was the first person in our MFA program to get a book contract. David was also one of the first people I remember meeting when I joined the Fairfield University MFA program. And he was a member of the first class to ever graduate. Always first, that David Fitzpatrick. He’s also the nicest guy, so when his book contract with HarperCollins was announced, the entire program was beside itself with pride. His memoir, Sharp, which documents David’s battle with mental illness, will come out later this summer. I’ve heard him read parts of it before, and I can’t wait to read the whole thing.

Deb Henry’s novel The Whipping Club made it onto Oprah’s summer reading list. Which is crazy, because during my very first residency, I workshopped with Deb and she gave us the very first chapter of The Whipping Club to read. And now Oprah’s recommending it.

Annabelle Moseley is a poet whose book, The Clock of the Long Now, was published earlier this year. A few weeks ago, she caused a stir when a reviewer realized she’d invented a new poetic form: the Mirror Sonnet. You can read more about the resulting discussion and what exactly a Mirror Sonnet is here.

I can’t even believe I get to share the stage with these writers. Check them out. If you can, come to Mystic and check us all out.

Life after the MFA, or Where has all the writing gone?

Every morning I write myself a to-do list.

The list usually reads something like this: Walk dog, email insistent but upbeat reminders out to students, check in with Editor A, remind Editor B I am still alive, call sources, haul trash to car, RSVP for two weddings, call more sources, go to work.

And then, down at the bottom of the list, written in tiny, introverted letters is one word: “Write.”

Lately, it hasn’t been getting crossed off.

Recently, I was talking to a writer, who asked me about my habits. “I try to write 500 words every day,” I said, with great gravitas.

Yeah, that’s a crock. I used to write 500 words a day. This time last year I was writing 500 words a day. All spring and some of the summer, I wrote 500 words a day. But in the last several weeks? I’ve been writing 0 words a day. I feel it my body. I feel the words I want to write building up like venom in my system all day.

So why am I not writing? No idea. I have lots of good reasons for not writing more than 0 words of fiction a day: I’m working again. We have a major building/repair project happening at our house. My husband’s truck broke down and I sat on the side of the road with him for an hour and a half. It’s the beginning of the school year and I have to devote a lot of time to my students. My friend just had a baby the other day and we’re off to go visit her.  These are all completely invalid as excuses, because I clearly have the time to write if I’m writing this blog post.

I think it might have something to do with my MFA program being over. Right before graduation, several professors ran a panel called “Life After the MFA.” At this panel, the profs first machine-gunned us with gloom and doom (“you’re graduating, you’re losing your monthly kick in the pants to produce work for a grade, you’ll lose your support system, you’ll write in a vacuum, everyone who supported you during this program is going to now expect you to come back out from underneath your MFA rock and contribute to your household while single-handedly publishing novels”).*

Then the profs attempted to offer us hope (“write every day, only your own willpower stands between you and literary greatness.”)*

Here’s the part that was not said: “If you don’t possess the willpower to write daily, you’re not a writer and you’re a bad person with low moral character because you will lie and tell people that you’re a writer when you’re not writing. You will never be one of those alums that we brag about in the brochure. Instead you will become one of those other creatures, the ones we don’t talk about, the ones who have an MFA but aren’t making a living with their art. Good luck with that.”

It wasn’t said, but I heard it.

So what’s happened? Why did I stop? Well, I scoffed at the panel and graduated in July. And then I spent several weeks rewriting a novelette and then I decided to give myself a nice long, happy break. It seemed well-deserved; two of my short stories have been accepted for publication this fall in various literary journals, the novelette has been submitted, and I’ve been doing well on the freelance front. I mean clearly, I can afford to be lazy. Right? Wrong. Without a kick in the pants from a mentor, or a prof or an editor, the words have dried up. Thank god for my writing groups. They are the only folks pushing me forward with my work right now. Because I know they’re waiting for it, I make the time to sit down and write for them.

A couple days ago I rewrote the intro to a chapter I was submitting to a group. I was in a better mood all day. So I’m trying to get back on track. Yesterday I jotted a few lines of my novel down in a notebook while I was waiting for my students. I decided to blog more often in an effort to prime the creative pump. I need to create some sort of schedule so that I can revise my novel while creating new work – I have an unfinished zombie piece which I think is very exciting. Tomorrow I’m going to place “Write” at the top of my to-do list, and I will write it in all caps.

Book post – “Flesh” by Hollis Seamon

Two weeks ago, we went camping in the Berkshires with a group of friends. Since I’d just graduated, it was the first time I’d been on this camping trip without a book I had to read. So I picked up a book that I’d been meaning to read for a year: Flesh, by Hollis Seamon, who was my mentor during my final semester at grad school.

Now, as a student, I’ve worked with four authors as mentors, and I’ve worked with many other authors during the residencies but, to my shame, I haven’t read all their books. I’ve bought many, many of those books, which is probably half the battle, since professors need to make money and eat and whatever else it is that published authors do. I’ve had the professors sign those books, or my Kindle, if I bought the electronic edition. I have two or three shelves in a bookcase dedicated to profs’ books, but I’ve just not been able to read them. So I thought I’d start with the books written by my mentors and move on from there. Because Hollis spent so much time on my own novel, I decided to start with hers.

I loved it. And I’m not just saying this because Hollis held my hand as I struggled to end my novel this spring. Flesh is billed as a mystery, and it is, sort of. There is a murder at the beginning, there’s a list of suspects and a cop and a protagonist who becomes an unlikely sleuth. But more than that, it’s a character-driven novel featuring Suzanne Brown a.k.a. Suzanne LaFleshe, “the sexiest fat person in New York.”

It is Suzanne, more than the suspense, that kept me reading voraciously through to the end. “Voracious,” by the way, is a word of which Suzanne would approve. She is a woman of many intriguing appetites. She loves food, and makes desserts like key lime pie in the middle of January, just for the hell of it. She loves sex, and leaves her door unlocked so that her many lovers can drop in for a tryst. She loves academia, and is struggling to complete a dissertation on cannibalism in English literature.

The themes of fat and food and cannibalism and hunger are explored throughout the novel. And if that sounds grisly, it can be, sometimes. But the symbolic theme of hunger was fascinating to me. And the fact that Hollis writes with a wicked sense of humor just made the whole thing even better.

There is some tragedy associated with this book, and I don’t mean the murder that kicks off the plot. As soon as Flesh came out in 2005, the small press that published it went out of business. So although I hear rumors of other Suzanne LaFleshe manuscripts, there will be no more Suzanne LaFleshe books, and that is a sadness.

The strangest thing about reading a book written by your most recent mentor is what happens when you’re sitting in a camp chair for hours and the dust jacket starts riding up on the book:

I may have graduated, but Hollis still appears to be watching me.

Next up will be a novel by Rachel Basch, when I finish reading that.

What my MFA program gave me.

This is where our residencies are held.

On Saturday, I graduated from my MFA program in Mystic, Connecticut. We had one more day at the residency, and now, I’m settling down to eat some lunch and do some laundry at home. I want to reflect on the program in a post, but because I’m still a little fried from 10 days of workshops, seminars, heavy drinking and various other writing-related activities, a proper blog post is beyond my abilities.

Luckily, yesterday I took a seminar, given by Porochista Khakpour, on experimental writing, and now I don’t feel the need to adhere to traditional forms.

So here, in no particular order, is a list of some of  of the things I’ve gained from Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts program on Enders Island in Mystic:


An MFA in Creative Writing, with a concentration in creative fiction

Five pounds

At least 100 Facebook friends

At least 10 really close friends

The pleasure of working with four talented published authors, who mentored me and read my work

The pleasure of having workshops with nine other published professors, and of taking seminars from many more

The honor of drinking a lot of Crane Lake table wine with almost every professor in the program, whether I worked with them or not

The company of poets

Several short stories that I might be able to publish

Two that I did/will publish

A trio of ill-conceived poems, inspired by Crane Lake table wine, sleepless nights and the company of poets

An article

Writing groups

Hundreds of bug bites

Dark circles under my eyes

A deep aversion to salads

The knowledge that my liver can still take abuse

A rudimentary understanding of LinkedIn

A first draft of a novel

The understanding that there is a big difference between the first draft of a novel and something that is good enough to show to an agent/publisher/my mother

The knowledge that I have to interview at least six drag queens in order for my novel to work

A funny-looking cap and gown and hood

Resilience during workshops

The ability to at least be quiet during workshop if I can’t be resilient

A love of strong verbs

An almost Pavlovian response to seeing bottles of Crane Lake table wine

50 other ideas for other novels that I can’t pursue until I hand this piece to an agent/publisher/my mother

Student loans that will come due any second now

A few connections

Some pointers on living my life after the MFA

A suspicion that life post-MFA will be a lot like life during the MFA, only without monthly packets and with student loans

The chance to see Wally Lamb, Sue Silverman, Mary Karr, Charles Simic, Philip Schultz and Rick Moody as they read from their work.

The haunting phrase, “Go get the eggs, you dwarf,” courtesy of Rick Moody’s reading in 2009.

An aversion to adverbs

A very, very long list of books I want to read

A long list of books that I have read

The knowledge that I may die at a very old age without having been able to read every book mentioned by every person I met at the program

The experience of being a fiction reader for Mason’s Road journal

The experience of being a T.A.

Two years of predetermined plans on New Year’s Eve

An ability to follow my bliss

Thank you, Fairfield University. This was exactly what I needed.

Writing recess

A couple weeks ago, I sat across from one of my professors at a coffee shop. We were discussing my novel. I had just finished the first draft of it and I was obsessing over several minor plot points because I’d shown it to a couple of writers’ groups and gotten conflicting reactions.

My professor sat patiently as I allowed my OCD* to ride roughshod over my common sense and my ability to remain calm. After about 20 minutes of listening to my nonsense, she cut me off.

“Don’t workshop it anymore. Now is the wrong time to workshop it.”

I blinked. I belong to three writers’ groups, two of which meet monthly. I’m headed off to my final residency for the Fairfield University MFA program. All of these groups require substantial writing samples from me on a regular basis.

I need to feed those beasts. And I have just the fodder for them: a 273-page, mostly unread and largely un-workshopped novel. I mean, come on. What else do I have to hand to my writers’ groups? A sheaf of angsty college poetry written in Spanglish, complete with coffee stains and cigarette burns? Darkwing Duck fan fiction from 1992? Because that’s what’s left in the bottom of my filing cabinet.

"I am the terror that flaps in the night. I am the fanfic that lurks in your past."

I communicated this to my professor, leaving out the bit about Darkwing Duck.

“Don’t bring anything. Or you know, bring something else you’re working on. But don’t workshop your novel now.”

My professor told me to fuggedaboutit , literally. She said that I needed to protect and incubate the work. She told me not to look at it, or think about it, for at least two weeks.

“I know that might be hard for you to do, but you have to try,” she said, and looked almost apologetic.

She needn’t have. It wasn’t hard. Not even a little bit. My inner procrastinator seized onto that piece of advice, and by the time I skipped out of that coffee shop, I had already pushed all thoughts, worries, or concerns about my book to the very back of my brain. I walked out of there carefree. I had permission to forget about my novel. Great! My professor had let me out for recess!

There is a problem with this. The problem is that my professor’s advice had two parts. The first was to forget, and the second went like this:

“In two weeks, sit down and read the whole thing. Try to do it in one day. Read it with a legal pad in hand, as if you were reading something written by somebody else. Then you will begin to see what changes need to be made.”

Oh dear. It’s been two weeks. And I am having a hard time resurrecting my interest, enthusiasm or desire to look at my first draft. I can’t even write other things. I just got back from a writers’ retreat, at which I wrote at least 1,500 words of another two projects. All of it was crap. All the sentences were Subject-Verb-Noun, the level of the most basic Dick and Jane reader. (Jane writes novels. Jane drinks wine. Booze doesn’t help.) I lost my mojo, and I don’t know where to look for it.

Actually, that’s a lie. I do know where to look for it.

Because as soon as my prof told me to forget about the novel, I (as I stated earlier) pushed all of my worries and fears about that novel to the very back of my brain. I opened a mental closet door, chucked in all my concerns about the novel, then shut the door quickly before anything else could come tumbling out of that closet and walked away quickly. Now I’m loathe to return.

Not only have I enjoyed a stress-free couple of weeks, but I don’t want to go rooting around back there to find my enthusiasm for my novel.

Here’s an example of some of the other items I’ve housed in that part of my brain:

• Things I learned in high school pre-algebra

• Memories of the ignoble things that I’ve done to other people

• Everything I know about the phrase “mill rate”

Good lord. I’ve put my novel behind the Gee-I-hope-I-never-have-to-think-about-this-again door. Why? I have some theories.

It could be plain old fear of failure. (Ahh! What if I work very hard and fail?)

It might be fear of success. (Ahh! What if I publish it? Then people will hold me responsible for what I wrote!)

It could be something I like to think of as Queen Midas Syndrome. (If I touched it, it’s already gold. No need to touch it further.)

It could be my short attention span. (I should work on my novel… Ooh! Something shiny!)

It could be laziness. (I’d rather play Scrabble on Facebook.)

It could be that it’s summer. (School’s out!)

It could be any of those things. Or it could be something else. But while I was typing the above list, I realized something. None of the bullet points are valid excuses for not printing out my novel (an exercise that takes my printer an hour to complete) and reading it some time this week. I mean really. I’m too arrogant to fear failure, I love smugness too much to fear success, I’ve never been diagnosed with ADD (*or OCD, for that matter), and although I’m lazy and it is summer, neither of those things has ever kept me from doing things that I hate. That leaves Queen Midas syndrome, but who cares? It doesn’t matter why I’m making excuses for myself. It matters whether or not I pay attention to the excuses.

Well then. Recess is over. I’m printing it, and I’m reading it, just as my professor suggested. But I will ignore her advice about submitting something else to my writers’ groups. They’re getting chunks of novel this month. After all, I am lazy.


Novels – they grow up so fast.

I’m still struggling to bring my novel to a close.

Tonight, for some inspiration, I dragged out the short story that eventually became my novel. I wrote the story last spring, and a year ago, turned it in as a workshop sample for my MFA program.

It’s a strange little piece. I’m not exactly sure when or how the idea for it hit me, but I was watching a lot of Rupaul’s Drag Race at the time, and as an arts reporter, had been writing a series of stories on summer Shakespeare productions. I must have also picked up a bag of JaVaNa coffee beans at the grocery store. Somehow all of this churned together in my brain and came out as a short story about a drag queen named Javana who desperately wants to play the Lady Macbeth in an amateur Shakespeare on the Green production.

The story is 16 pages long. That’s it. Sixteen pages. My manuscript is, at this point, 260 pages long. Good lord – that’s a lot of pages. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that long. They funny thing is that the 16-pager is almost a miniature of the novel; both pieces cover (more or less) the same material and the same amount of time. Both attempt the same character arc. It’s amazing to me that I ever thought I could do that with a short story.

Novels. They grow up so fast. This one has been my baby. I’ve loved it and nurtured it and given it the best I could. That said, I can’t wait until this one is fully grown.  After graduation, I’m kicking its lazy butt out of my house so it can go out into the world, get a job and hopefully support me in my old age.


The elusive ending.

As my MFA program winds down, I’m seeing lots of members of my cohort (that’s MFA-speak for “my class”) writing Facebook statuses that look like this:

Joe Schmo has typed the last words.

Jane Doe sending her thesis out, OMG collapsing brb.

BobTodd just typed THE END.

I’m going to be honest. While I’m happy for my classmates and proud of their accomplishments, I’m jealous. The portion of my novel that is acting as my thesis is  complete, but I want to type THE END. And I thought the end was imminent (and not in a Harold Camping kind of way). Two weeks ago I wrote that I was beginning to write the end of the novel, and I was, but here’s the thing – the end of the novel just keeps getting further and further away.

The excellent Phil Lemos (who typed THE END on May 16) recently blogged that he was proud to have finished his novel. He wrote that he had started many novels in his life:

I emphasize the word “start,” because I would always get about 20 pages in before something else would command my attention — birthday parties, homework, the latest comic book — and I would toss the novel aside.

I know the feeling. I have a filing cabinet drawer dedicated to dead novels. Below are a few examples of the things that languish in my little drawer of horrors:

•There’s one novel, written when I was 15 years old, which thankfully petered out by the time I turned 16. I wrote about drinking and drugs and lots of other things I had no experience with as a 15-year-old. As a result of my innocence, bizarre things happen. My characters take one sip of beer and are wasted. Someone walks by a pot smoker and suddenly starts acting as if they’ve been dropping acid. It’s like Reefer Madness, but in the form of a bad novel. I should have thrown this manuscript out when I was in college, but I keep it as a reminder of how bad my writing can be.

•There’s another, almost complete novel, which features dinosaurs and a theme park in a dying Midwestern mill town. It’s a really good science fiction novel, if  I do say so myself, and I’m very proud of it. I hope to salvage it someday by rewriting everything in third person, because it does have some flaws. The biggest flaw?  Michael Crichton already wrote it. It’s called Jurassic Park.

• There’s an action novella (written before Sept. 11) featuring a reluctant member of a domestic terrorist group who is forced to go to Boston in order to  pick up a mysterious package. That piece is almost done. I’ve already written the ending. It’s missing two pages, right between the ending and where I stopped writing. It’s been like that for a decade. Just two pages.

And there’s my real problem, because that’s where I always stop writing. I write the end. I write almost all the way up to the end, and then I stop. I get distracted by life, or, more likely, by another novel idea.

I’ve overcome some of these obstacles. I’ve been dragging my feet creatively for some time, but I’ve stayed strong – I’m writing at least 500 words every day. And last month I knew I must be getting near the end because I came up with a new novel idea, an opening scene and a soundtrack to listen to while writing it. I jotted down some notes and resisted it. I kept on plugging along with my current project.

But now I realize that I’m falling into my old habits. I’ve already written the last page. And I’m trying to close the gap between where I am now – which seems not far from the end – and that final couple of paragraphs. Two weeks ago I thought the end was very, very close. No more than a day or two of writing.

But the more I write, the more it seems like I’m just filling out my daily word count and not advancing the plot. All of a sudden my protagonist heads off to do something completely unrelated to the story. Or stands in a park, musing. Could it be that I’m actually trying not to finish the novel? Am I afraid to say good bye to the characters? It seems more likely that I’m just afraid to finish my draft.

Why? Maybe because  a finished draft brings me one step closer to being accepted, rejected  or ignored by agents, publishers, the reading public and potentially by my friends and family. Or maybe I just like a little self sabotage to spice up my semester.

Or maybe it’s none of those things and I’m just the slow kid in class. It always did take me longer to eat my lunch and finish my math homework.