Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reapplying to MFA Programs – Part 2

Continued from Part 1

One thing I have already done is hire a consultation service, Driftless House, to look at my application writing sample.  Even more than identifying areas for improvement, I just wanted to regain some sense of control over this whole process, and as soon as possible. The cost wasn't cheap at $360, but it was worth it, so much so that I have every intention of using the service again in the fall.

I felt like I'd been given nourishment that I'd been lacking for years. The consultant, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, had obviously spent ample time reading and thinking about my work. Feedback came in the form of in-line edits, margin comments, a six-page single-spaced critique letter and follow-up Q&A. It covered everything from the placement of commas to big-picture plans for next year.

I thought I'd be more resistant to at least some of his criticism, but the truth is virtually all of it made perfect sense to me. The consultant was gracious enough to offer some of his own personal experiences, hoping they might lend me some perspective, particularly as it pertains to my novel. After making some astute assumptions about me and my book (based on reading one chapter and skimming two others) he said:

"These assumptions move us toward a larger one: that Max Underground is sort of the quintessential post-college novel, where a twenty-something writer tries to write a novel, their first, that is to some degree a more exciting rendition of their own life. (If you're actually fifty years old, my credibility has just been completely fucking shot...) These novels range from half the Fitzgerald canon to Chabon's Mysteries of Pittsburgh through plenty of lesser contemporary works by twenty-something “it” authors of questionable merit, down to an unquantifiable mass of unpublishable works by self-involved dabblers, many of whom you will be competing with for MFA spots and should easily beat."

Does this guy know how to package a hard truth or what? See how he flattered me right after telling me that my novel wasn't groundbreaking?

His point was not to discourage me from finishing or trying to publish the novel, of course. Rather, he was suggesting that I might be "putting a great deal of energy and care into a pretty small vessel." He shared that he too wrote this kind of novel after graduating.  After spending three years on it he was finally compelled to take a break. In anticipation of applying to MFA programs, he spent the following year working on just two short stories, and in transitioning from novel to stories he experienced a "leap" in the quality of his writing.  Apparently, this leap resulted in stories good enough to get him accepted into several great programs.

In truth, from early on I had the sense that Max Underground was "typical" in the ways he described.  Since having that minor, unsettling revelation, I've been fighting to make my personal, quintessential post-graduate novel as exceptional as I could, so desperate was I to save it from becoming the unpublished "starter novel" that seems like an unofficial prerequisite to becoming a successful fiction writer.

But I've been at it so long, and I think I've been needing a break for a while. The consultant's feedback made me feel surprisingly at ease with letting the novel go, if only for a while.

I've decided steal his game plan -- between now and November I will attempt to complete two short stories, and hope that one of them develops into my best work, and subsequently my ticket to MFA bliss. I'm also going to make my best use of his feedback on the epilogue, continue submitting it to journals, and will consider it my backup in case the other two stories don't turn out so well.

So the beat goes on. Da-da-dum, da-dum da-dah.

*Image is Sarah Palin's gubernatorial resignation speech, as copy-edited by Vanity Fair.


Kristin V said...

LOVE the Sarah Palin speech.

Shilpa said...

I like the feedback the consultant guy gave you. Nice that there's a resource available to help. Sorry it didn't work out this year, but I'll bet Africa will give you some amazing inspiration for those short stories! You'll get 'em next year!

Chrissy said...

Thanks for the review of Driftless House. I was thinking about using their services, and you've convinced me to take the plunge.

Also: Amy Hempel. Amy Hempel! You are so lucky! I am so jealous!

Best of luck working on your materials this year. I'll be doing the same!

AshleyM said...

I am, of course, sorry to hear about the outcome of the application process...but I have to say, Tanzania?! Way, way exciting. I can't wait to read "Ink and Beans Goes International"!! : )
PS I hope it goes without saying that if I can be of any help to the creation of your new short stories, please do let me know!