Revision: Taking My Own Advice

If you follow this blog, you may know that I’m publishing a creative writing textbook next year, titled A Writer’s Craft:Multi-Genre Creative Writing. The contract has been signed on both sides of the Atlantic, and this fall I’ve been working on revisions. Since I’ve taught with the notes that became this book for a few years, the manuscript has already been revised several times and is pretty clean. But the publisher wanted me to broaden the focus from my class to a more general audience, something I’d already been doing, so there were only a few places that still had to be changed and some exercises that had to be revised to work in other contexts. Since my publisher, Palgrave/MacMillan, is based in the UK, they also wanted me to try to address an international market.

These were all fairly straightforward revisions that a careful read-through and some tinkering with the language ought to address. I knew I also wanted to add a glossary and bibliography, and I had some introductory material for instructors and students and an appendix I wanted to include.

What I hadn’t anticipated was needing to follow my own advice on revision. I read through the book a chapter at a time, making my corrections and revisions, and everything was pretty much finished for that stage. Yet I had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right with the chapter on Creative Nonfiction.

My advice for revision includes rethinking what you’ve done and being willing to make major changes if necessary. It also involves looking at your work in terms of balance. Are any of the parts less developed than the others and should they be equally developed.

When I went back over the chapter on Creative Nonfiction, I realized it was significantly shorter than the other chapters on genre. I knew the reason for this, of course. Initially, my course in creative writing had included only poetry and fiction. Eventually, I added nonfiction and then drama. For awhile, I still gave more emphasis to fiction and poetry, but in recent years I’ve found ways to manage teaching all four genres equally. This is reflected in my syllabus and in the number of days I devote to each chapter.

A couple of years ago when I started thinking of the notes as a textbook, I had added a fair amount to the chapter on drama because there are so many technical aspects to the form. But Creative Nonfiction didn’t seem to have as many issues to cover, especially since it is the first genre we get to and we rely heavily on material that has already been covered in previous lessons, so it felt like there was less to say.

I knew all these reasons why there were fewer pages, yet it still felt like I was giving Creative Nonfiction short shrift, and I knew that wasn’t the case when I covered it in class. So I went back to my notes, and went over the chapter again. Ultimately, I decided to spend more time on each of the types of Creative Nonfiction, adding more detail on memoir and personal essay and whole new passages about the lyric essay, true crime, travel writing, and flash nonfiction. In the process, I had to develop new content, research more about forms of nonfiction, and rethink the strategy of the chapter. This also helped me bring out more of the content that often comes up in class discussion.

It was more work than anticipated, but I wasn’t ever sorry that I needed to do it. It made the book stronger, and inspired me to write another short chapter on other genres that serves as a conclusion to the book. Now I just have the appendix to finish and the glossary and bibliography to format. I should make my Nov. 30 deadline, and it looks like I’ll even come in just under the 70,000 word limit that my editor and I agreed on for the revised manuscript. More on that soon! And if I don’t post a lot on this blog in the next couple of weeks (as I haven’t the past few weeks), you’ll know why!

Book Review: Miss Jane by Brad Watson

Miss JaneMiss Jane by Brad Watson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s no wonder Watson’s latest novel was nominated for the National Book Award. Watson presents us with compelling characters whose lives explore contemporary issues in a setting of historical fiction. The title character, Jane is born in the early 20th century with a birth defect that leaves her incontinent and unable to have children or maintain normal social relations. We see her from the day she is born and follow her and her family into adulthood as they struggle with and adapt to the implications of her condition. She cannot stay in school, yet she is bright enough to be able to learn on her own how to read and do math. She is naturally curious about herself and about her sexuality, though she is unable to fully explore that side of her life. She is intensely aware of the fertile life on her Mississippi farm, and seems more in tune with life than many around her as she accepts the body she was born with.

Watson’s portrayal of the character based on his own great-aunt is warm and sympathetic, even as his understanding of the family dynamics and the struggles Jane’s parents and sister must go through. His portrayal of rural life in Mississippi in the 1920’s and 1930’s is spot-on and a significant part of the value of this book. The relationships of men and women who work on the farm, the struggles to eek out a living from the soil during hard times, and the bone-wearying life of a country doctor, perhaps Jane’s greatest and most lasting friend, serve as the perfect foil for her own struggles and add to the rich portrayal of Southern country life.

Miss Jane is not always an easy read, as it takes on difficult issues of gender and race, yet we are much the wiser for it.

View all my reviews

Clarion Ledger Review

Barrier Island Suite front cover imageI am incredibly honored that today’s Clarion Ledger includes a review of Barrier Island Suite, and I’m grateful for the meticulous reading that Lisa McMurtray gives of these poems. I’m also thankful to Steve Yates who organizes these reviews, which is such a great service to writers and readers in Mississippi.

I do need to make one small correction — my reading at Delta State is on Friday, Sept. 30.

Barrier Island Suite Fall Book Tour

I’ve been updating my Events page with readings and signings I’ll be doing for the next couple of months. It’s starting to look like a book tour for Barrier Island Suite:

Upcoming Readings and Signings

I will continue to update the page as I add events, but if you live near Jackson, Hattiesburg, Long Beach, Greenwood, Cleveland, Vicksburg, Columbus, or Starkville, now is your chance to come out and hear me read from my new book!

15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA (plus 5 bonus things)

Here are 15 things you should probably do before applying to a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing like ours:

  • Read at least a dozen different literary magazines (find some at your library or local bookstore)
  • Read multiple issues of at least two literary magazines
  • Submit to your favorite literary magazines multiple times
  • Get rejected by magazines multiple times
  • Maybe even be published once or twice if you’re lucky (not required)
  • Revise your best story, group of poems, essay, or play at least four more times
  • Read annual ‘best of’ anthologies in the genre or genres you want to write
  • Read at least a dozen recent books in the genre you want to write
  • Subscribe to Poets & Writers or Writer’s Digest
  • Take a creative writing class or weekend/summer workshop
  • Find a good, local bookstore and attend several readings
  • Join or form your own writing group
  • Get a job, so you can learn to balance work and writing
  • Consider going into a career that will actually earn you money, then realize that you have to write (don’t give up your career unless you can’t stand it, then find another day job you can stand), so you realize that now is the right time for you to take that next, daring, crazy step.
  • Research at least 20 different writing programs and apply to at least 6

You might not have to do all those things to get to the last step. And once you get there, you should probably consider doing some of the things you skipped, plus these added bonus things:

  • Add up the cost of tuition for 2-4 years of your MFA
  • Add to that the cost of lost income if you don’t keep your job
  • Add to that the cost of interest on student loans if you need them
  • Consider whether this financial investment will still seem worth it even if there are no immediate financial rewards from earning your degree
  • Consider how having a Master’s degree in Creative Writing might affect your career, but don’t assume you will have a high paying job as a college professor

My point is not to frighten you away from pursuing an MFA, but rather to encourage you to take a long, sober look at the financial costs and professional benefits of attaining the degree. Be prepared, both professionally and financially, before you start. An MFA won’t make you a writer — it should make you a better writer.

There are other ways to be a writer, though an MFA program may be your best and quickest route to becoming the writer you want to be. You should go into it with a financial plan to avoid excessive debt, and you should go into it with clear goals for how the degree can improve your professional life as well as your writing life. Then make sure your program will help you attain those goals.

You should also go into an MFA program with a sense of the literary marketplace and the market for the kind of writing you want to do. And you should go into it after exploring that marketplace and determining that an MFA really is the best route for you and  that the programs you’re applying to will take you on that route. Often an MFA is the best choice, but not always, and you will be much happier and more successful if you make an informed decision so you really know what you’re getting into and what you want to get out of your MFA.

If you’re considering a traditional residential MFA program, then you should probably do all of these things, too, except you may not need to already have a day job, and your financial decision might depend on whether you are accepted into a program that fully funds you. Typically you work, teaching undergraduate classes to earn that full funding. You will give up any job you have now, move to the university that houses your program, and become a full-time graduate student/instructor.

Low-residency programs tend to be for students who already have career and/or family and aren’t able to uproot their lives and move to a new city for their program, so they should have a job where they are or have savings or other means to support themselves during their degree. Scholarships may be available (and there are national scholarship programs) but teaching options tend to be more limited because you are not on campus.

See our program’s Guide for Applicants for some advice on funding an MFA and for links to resources.

More Thoughts on MFA Applications

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a series of posts about MFA applications, beginning with “What to Say in your Statement of Purpose.” At the time, The W was just launching its low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, and I wanted to be transparent about the application process by telling prospective students what I would be looking for. Now that we’re starting our second year of the program, and I’ve been through 3 application cycles (we have considered a few applicants for the spring semester), it seemed like a good time to revisit those posts, which still get quite a few hits, and to add some thoughts based on recent experience.

Looking back over what I said about the writing sample and letter of intent, everything still seems pretty true: I’m looking for your best work that is publishable and looks like it will fit in with our program. In your letter, I still want to know about who you are (as a writer), where you’ve been, and where you’re headed (what your goals are for your writing). So if I were to add anything, it would be that the letter and the writing sample really do go together.

Our successful applicants, the ones who have been admitted into the program, have had clear goals and a history that shows they have a good chance of achieving those goals. Their writing sample is a good fit for the goals they have in mind. Even if it’s not a direct fit, if their past writing and their future goals don’t line up exactly, the letter of intent explains how their past has led them to these new goals. It draws the connection between the writing sample and the MFA program experience they want.

Their goals are not just “to be a published writer,” which pretty much goes without saying for anyone applying to an MFA program, but instead are more specific: what kind of writer, what kind of publishing, what do they want to do to earn a living while working to become a published writer, and how will an MFA program help them along this path.

Most of the writers we’ve turned down haven’t convinced me that their writing and/or their understanding of the career of a writer is fully developed yet. When I turn people down, it isn’t because they’re bad writers, in other words. It is because I feel they aren’t ready to make the investment in an MFA, which will cost a fair amount in terms of time and money, so I try to offer advice on how to develop as a writer before applying to programs again.

As I look to the future, I think my responses to applicants may change, though. So far, the number of qualified applicants has pretty much kept pace with our goals for the program and exceeded our expectations, but not by so much that we had to turn people away. That may change. As more people learn about our program, we are more likely to consider ‘fit’ an important criterion. There will come a time, I have little doubt, when we have to tell qualified writers that we believe our program is not the best fit for them. As the competition grows, quality will by necessity no longer be the only deciding factor. When looking at several dozen qualified applicants and deciding whom and how many we can support, the needs of the program will be more and more important.

In other words, giving a clear sense of the genres you want to work in will be helpful (though I can’t predict which genres will be overrepresented in the future). Giving us a sense of the kind of writing you want to do within those genres will also be imperative. Not knowing the answers to these questions might rule someone out, even if the writing sample seems competent enough. Still, I don’t know that we will always choose the ‘top’ writers from the applicant pool. We will begin to look at other intangibles, such as background, style, and personality, to find a mix that will make a positive experience for all of our students. A good writer who has a clear sense of where she’s going and who adds diversity (of style, of background, of age, etc.) may be chosen over a writer with a slightly better writing sample who doesn’t surprise or add much to our program. Someone who is brilliant but too different from what we are set up to handle might also be turned away because we don’t feel we can support him or her.

So when you’re working on your writing sample and letter of intent, what can you do? Turn in your best work, and be as specific and as thoughtful about your writing and your goals as you can. Be honest, be yourself, and know that if our program turns you down this time, you will find the right place for you another time — and it may even be our program when you are ready for us or we are ready for you.


Dispatches from #MSBookFest

MS Book FestThis was my second Mississippi Book Festival (also the second) and my first time as a participant. Last year at the first annual festival, I volunteered in the morning and then went to panels in the afternoon. This year, I read in the morning (11:15) and went to panels in the afternoon. Both experiences were great, and I’m planning to go again next year one way or another!
If you’ve never been, then it may be hard to imagine thousands of people milling around outdoors on the Capitol lawn in Jackson, Mississippi on a hot August day. But that’s what happens. Fortunately, there are tents for the vendors and much of the action happens in the shade. Readings are held indoors — either in the Capitol itself or at Galloway Methodist Church, right across the street. Capitol tours are also available. And there are plenty of things to do indoors or out all day long.

For participants, the festival started with a reception on Friday night. This was supposed to be at Eudora Welty’s Home in the garden, but this year the threat of rain drove us indoors to the Old Capitol Museum, which was also very pleasant. Participants also had a breakfast on Saturday morning to start off our day at the Dept. of Archives and History, and we had an Author Lounge room in the Capitol where we could cool off, get registered, and hang out between sessions.

For me, these were some of the best moments of the Festival. I got a chance talk with (and meet) some of the authors who will be returning to Mississippi for the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium in October, such as Brad Watson, Paulette Boudreaux, Becky Hagenston, James Kimberly, and Patricia Boyett. lemuriabooks

I also got to chat with old friends, see former students and a few of our MFA students or other current W students who live in Jackson or came down for the day, stroll through the aisles of Lemuria Books and Turnrow Books and talk to them about possibly doing a reading soon, wander by the small press and self-published author tables in Author Alley and meet folks, including Faith Garbin who is a friend of a friend that has a great-looking book of poems out called How We Bury Our Dead, see the good folks at the University Press of Mississippi, and talk to the Mississippi Library Commission, Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, and other exhibitors.

Of course, the highlight was to give a reading with 4 other poets and poet/moderator Derrick Harriell to a packed room. It was a fantastic crowd, and I enjoyed listening to everyone else on the panel that included James Kimbrell, whose work I’ve followed for a long time, and poets I’m only just getting to know like Caroline Randall Williams and R. Flowers Rivera. Though perhaps the most surprising ‘new’ voice on the panel was Bee Donley, who is still writing poems and publishing her third book from the nursing home. Her vitality and humor, along with her precise language and imagery, were a revelation. The panel had a wide range of poems and poets that represented Mississippi well. The only issue we had was that we ran a little long and didn’t have time for Q&A. Maybe next year there need to be 2 poetry panels…

After the reading, we headed to the book signing tent on the Capitol lawn, where I got to meet authors from different panels sitting to either side of me. I signed quite a few books and had a chance to talk to people one-on-one, making this large festival still seem like a very personal space. Even after the signing, when I had the chance to go to some of the other panels or walk the Capitol halls, it was nice when people came up to me to say they enjoyed my reading or to ask about my book. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.

Even though a rain shower did come through as my time in the signing tent was ending, it didn’t seem to bother anyone for long. Plastic tarps went over the books in the tents, umbrellas went up, and people found someplace dry to hang out. The rain didn’t last too long, and it cooled us off. Soon everything was back to normal, and the festival continued as planned. I was able to relax and enjoy the afternoon panels, and then head to Hal and Mal’s for a little dinner and the afterparty with Thacker Mountain Radio.