MFA in Writing: is it worth it?

May 2017-2018: In the last year, my writing life and career has taken off incredibly. Why? It all started when I moved across country to start my MFA in Writing and Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I thought I’d list the changes here. This isn’t for bragging rights but to say thank you for all who support me, encourage me, and all that good stuff. You know who you are. So, thank you.

  • MFA writing program began in Vermont and from there…
  • Met so many inspiring writers, building a sense of community, peers and friends.
  • My own writing has opened up in new ways and forms.
  • Discovered a joy in writing short-shorts/ micro-memoirs.
  • Short stories published.
  • Book reviews pubished.
  • Director’s Award (MFAWP).
  • Vermont Book Award Fellowship.
  • AWP Mentorship.
  • PGWC partial scholarship.
  • Merit scholarship (MFAW).
  • Honorable mention – Glimmer Train – short story.
  • Top 25 finalist – Glimmer Train – flash fiction.
  • Top 5 finalist – Writing by Writer’s contest.
  • “Headhunted” by the top US Land Rover magazine, Rovers North.
  • Started Wanderlust-Journal, learning how to run an online journal, using Submittable, marketing, growing an audience, and with over 19,800 views in six months.
  • Editorial work with Upstreet and Hunger Mountain Reviews.
  • Developed a stronger social media presence to create a larger community of writers, especially via Twitter.
  • Learned how to develop a teaching philosophy/ lessons for workshops and lectures.
  • Written professional CVs and resumes, a media kit, updating regularly.
  • Created a professional submissions letter which has rewarded me with many a rejection (68 to be exact) plus all the new accolades and scholarships.
  • Connected with various indie presses and publishers, and I plan to stay in touch with a few of them.
  • Written artist statement/ letter of intentions for applications which serves to focus my goals as a writer.
  • I’ve had some encouraging conversations with literary agents who decided not to take me on saying the writing was intruiging and solid but my aesthetic/ voice wasn’t their style.
  • Two new novels written and are being revised alone and in workshops.
  • Over 100 short stories written and currently being collected/ revised/ played with.
  • Joined the South West Writers Association and have a profile on their website.
  • Reached out to the Sante Fe Writer’s Project/ Quarterly, they’re going to publish a book review in July.
  • Set up a writer’s retreat at my place in NM via Wanderlust journal website and submittable.
  • Pubishing on Medium.com with travel essays.

In other words, for me, the MFA has been more than worth it and I’m only just finishing the first year. I’m switching to a low-residency program so that I can live and study from home for the second year. I’ll be able to continue working freelance, writing, and putting into practice much of these new skills. My only concern is losing that sense of a writers’ community when I’m back in New Mexico and so a large focus will be for me to reach out and maintain connections and conversations with other writers and creatives.

I feel like I’m about to take off and fly. Thank you my friends. For all you have done for me, for believing in me, for wanting me to succeed.

Sleam

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Craft: Writing Prompt

How to find the themes that you are drawn to writing about.

Do you want to reach deep inside? Find the areas and themes that make your writing uniquely yours? Try this. Over and over. Random lists of nouns. No editing. Free write. Nouns. Word associations. Just write. Try it. Over and over. Put the lists aside and come back when ever you doubt your own voice. Try it.

I did.

It’s funny how the same things repeat in my work that I’d not consciously chosen. Obvious to some but I’m only just being aware of myself as a writer and this is the incredible benefit of my time in the MFA program, being a conscious writer.

Well, there you go, try it, free write this morning with your coffee and the sunshine.

1.

Tomboy. Dirt. Cows. Boys. Rules. Why? Why? Dad. Bedroom. Mum. Darkness. Waves. Camping. Trucks. Boys. Tools. Yes. Why? Jeans. Scruffy. Dirt. Cows. Patty. Why? Not.

2.

Female. Femme. Butch. Tires. Trucks. Fix it. Talk. Tellings. Beer. Drama. Girls. Pain. Drama. No. Dreams. Nightmares. Outside. Failed. Failed. Why? Dead. Gone.

3.

Rovers. Community. Passion. Talking. Tools. Girls. Boys. Camera. Bodies. Shapes. Lighting. Too much. Details. Seats. Engine. Leafsprings. Bears. Dogs. Family. Friends.

4.

Camping. Woods. Bears. Why? Fire. Food. Quiet. Calm. Sleep. Stevie. Dogs. Gods. Fire. Leaves. Wind. Window. Reading. Writing. Food. Beer. Calm. Quiet. Finally.

5.

Nightmares. Coma. Choices. Decisions. Christmas. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beer. Beer. Beer. Books. Read. Hide. Pubs. Hospitals. Nightmares. Mum.

6.

Camping. Fields. Trees. Decisions. Fires. Food. Camping. Vans. Trucks. Tents. Beetle. Dogs. Cats. Camp. Out. Away. Smiles. Hide. People. Less. More. Me. Me. Found. Peace. Smiles. Hide. Out. Side.

Don’t analyse but write. It’s a fun little game for your own pleasure in word associations.

 

 

 

Craft Essay: Landscape as Character

The environment affects the readers, as well as your characters, storylines and the atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

 

There is chapter in Tell it Slant which tackles how and why we need to consider the role of place as character within our work. It’s a theme for me, one I want to improve upon. When I’d applied at VCFA, I’d sent in some essays on loss, dealing with grief in Wales, in Ireland, in Guatemala. Once accepted in the MFA, Julianna (Baggott) had emailed me to say she’d seen my landscapes as characters within the narratives. It was the first time I’d  considered it like that and the idea resonated. It also makes me more aware and therefore self-conscious of how I write of place. It’s a good thing.

“If you live in a place – any place, city or country – long enough and deeply enough you can learn anything, the dynamics and inter connections that exist in every community, be in plant, human, or animal – you can learn what a writer needs to know.” (Ehrlich)

The idea is that places react to us, inform us, and affect us even subtly. It becomes a character like the regular at the cafe that you’ve not spoken to directly but miss when he’s gone.

The chapter offers advice on how to develop a stronger sense of space and reactions by paying attention. What is both inside and outside of the space you are in right now, reading this? Are you somewhere that feels familiar? Comforting? Or is it a place that will never be home?

Our responses to place come from our ideas and reactions to/ for visual beauty, a drive for comfort, home, psychological, physical needs. We need to imbue our writing with place in fiction and nonfiction. The environment affects us and characters, storylines and atmosphere. It’s all related; you can’t split one from another, the sky from the dirt below.

Home is loaded for all of us; it’s where we learned about the world, the dynamics inside the family, and the relationship to homes, towns, and neighbours. The details matter, the smell of a garden, the sight of a meadow full of cows, mountains at sunrise and oceans at sunset, what’s comforting? What is home? Fight or flight response in you? In the characters? In the readers?

These are personal and everyday connections we can only hint at and can’t control how readers react though but might give a sense of narrator or protagonist.

The challenge is in the how, how do we get it across to the reader? Verbs, adjectives, similes, metaphors, details. I think for me it has to be the details, what I choose to describe, and in what terms. Tenderness or toughness? Texture or sounds? How do I take on the landscape?

“I left one kind of home to find another, to discover what resided in me and where I resided most fully, and so to better appreciate the home I had left.” Pico Iyer.
Why have I done that? Home, Bromsgrove never felt good to me, too much baggage, too different an interest in life kept me seperate from everyone but my family. I had to leave to find a sense of home elsewhere, people with similar interests, a shared focus on travels and stories.
The gift though as a writer is when the details, the textures and people described are done in ways that makes the personal into the universal. The place is much more than the land itself, it is in the conversations, dialogue, food, sights, locals, smell of cooking, and songs in the air and the radios in the houses. All the things that make life itself. And it’s done with generosity. Writing can engage the reader in that specific landscape, to stand at the window with you, and see what you and only you chose to show.

Gretel Ehrlich’s Solace of Open Space, is suggested to me for help writing about my physical reactions to the open land of New Mexico. I’ve ordered it already. How could I not? It’s here. I’ll review it next, it was worth waiting for.

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A few suggestions:

  • Think of a room and jot down the elements in as much detail as you can remember, quickly, no editing, just put yourself in the room, and then come back and fill in an emotional tone for each detail. Let your essay function as an emotional camera.

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  • Free write on an interaction with a wild animal. Was it personally meaningful? How? How did it resonate with you as a metaphor for your life at the time? Did it change how you looked at something happening then? What haunts you about that interaction?
    Free write on your favourite place. Put yourself in the scene. Jot down all the sensory details, what did you just eat there, drink, see, smell, touch, tickle? What happened before and what happened next? What mood does this place put you in?

stevie

  • Play with your environment as a character. Get to know it. Feel it in your body.
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Salwarpe, Worcs, UK.

Review: Abandon Me by Melissa Febos

Abandon Me (Memoirs) by Melissa Febos

Raw. Vulnerable. Intelligent. Insightful.

Didn’t I use these same words for her first book Whip Smart? Yes, and Febos has built upon that first book by offering us another look into her life in a way that is just as honest. Her gift with words and stories takes us into the darkness of an obsessive love. In Abandon Me, Febos creates a work that we can relate on one level or another. Who hasn’t lost/ found something magical through such an absorbing love? I’ve drowned and learned to breath underwater for another’s attentions even as my friends were throwing me a lifeline.

Febos has a fearless look at herself and it’s done with insight and intimacy. At times, it makes me want to put the book down and say, hush, hush, it’s okay. (Yes, my reviews are personal responses, not academic studies: I’m okay with that.)

The line between love and obsession here is woven within a framework taken from many sources. She writes about her struggles using psychology, historic and current culture, literature, music, and other influences such as Bowie, Jung, and Borges to understand her actions within a broader context. So well read she is that it comes naturally and it is easy to understand her references. There is fluency to her thoughts and how she expresses these links and echoes. The layers bring out universal truths lying within a complex lover relationship, her childhood, and a birth father that she builds a connection with throughout the book. As such, her essays are poetic and intelligent.
They are also heartfelt.

“If we break up,” I said slowly, “Everything you’ve give me will be ruined, transformed into shrouds of miserly.” I smiled.

Of her birth father: I was a curious child but I was never curious about Jon. Jon was Jon. She had known of him, her mother had spoken of him, yet they had never met.

Febos writes of finding him, her first impressions and how over time, she came to know or at least accept him as a flawed man and was okay with that. She developed a genuine compassion for him in her essays.

Mostly though, Abandon Me describes the stages of Febos’ flawed obsession with a lover. One that asked of her to make peace with a temper and mind that subtly controlled her: I didn’t care if I was right or wrong. I’m sorry, I whispered.

In this memoir, Febos once again takes us deep into her emotional struggles, seeing how desperately she wanted that love and how she was willing, or rather for a long time, unable, to say anything but yes to her lover, needing that connection, woken up by it in ways she’d not known. It’s addictive that love, that obsessive need and intense connection, especially for those who’d not yet known any other like it. The sensuality, the raw emotion, the incredible highs and lows, it’s all part of it. And when Febos writes, looking can by the truest kind of love, I thought of how she has looked so keenly at her own actions and emotions. I sense a deepest kind of love of self: She’s taken us with her, into dark times, compulsions, anger, loss, fire, passion, and come out the other side with a hard-won love for her own flawed vulnerable and heartfelt self. It’s quite a gift.

 

COVER-abandon-me

Review by Sarah Leamy.

Sarah is an award-winning author of the novels When No One’s Looking and Lucky Shot, and the travelogue, Van Life. She has recently received the Director’s Award from VCFA, the Vermont Book Award Fellowship, the Postgraduate Writer’s Conference Scholarship and the MFA in Writing Merit Scholarship. She writes short stories, articles and creative nonfiction. www.sarahleamy.com

Shorts

What if I told you

What if I told you that some days I’m scared to write? And others I’d cry if I didn’t? What if I told you that attention makes me want to walk the hills with notebooks and pens stuck in the truck at the bottom of the trail. What if I told you that I love to write but when I don’t, my world wobbles, days drag out, and a damp depression creeps in like a mold? What if I told you that even when I’m listening to you, making great eye contact, smiling, making jokes with you, I’m also wondering how Ernest would talk to you, and what would Janice say right now? Where would she sit? Would she want to chat to us or would she stay away, distracted by someone behind us? What if I told you that my head hollows out when you tell me the same old story of what you ate for breakfast, watched on TV, saw on the drive over, blah blah blah. What if I told you that I don’t get it, the usual conversational flow of back and forth, yet some times it feeds me a spark, an idea, and then imagination takes it out by the hand and sets it as free as a kite in a breeze tethered lightly by my attention. What if I told you that when a tropical storm slams that kite into the air and if I blink or nod or respond to you in any way, I’ll lose sight of that flash of color in my mundane life of eat, sleep, walk and write. What if that kite flies in a sky and no one looks up?

Fast into the Night by Debbie Clarke Moderow

Book Review: Just what I needed. It was a snowy afternoon in Vermont and I was bored. I picked it up from the pile of books next to my bed. I started Fast into the Night and then put it down. Why? I knew I wanted to settle in to it, and have a chance to read a good chunk undisturbed.

Dogs walked and fed. Snacks on a plate. Pjs on. Glass of malbec. Back to the memoir.

And what an amazing memoir. What an amazing world she brought us into. Iditarod, the Alaskan landscape, the characters, the dogs, and her family’s support. Incredible. I pulled up the covers and kept reading.

Moderow is passionate and compassionate. Her focus was constantly on the comfort and health of her team of dogs, she was so in tune with the needs of their individual needs and personalities. She wouldn’t put them in danger just to finish Iditarod. That would have gone against her integrity and heart. You have to respect her for that. Her goal was simply–if it could be simple–to complete the course with happy and healthy dogs. She tried twice, once in 2003 and again two years later. She finished with a healthy team in 13 days, 19 hours, 10 minutes and 32 seconds.

Moderow captures the character so well, the four and two legged ones, that we see her all the more clearly too. Moderow, even when struggling so intensely, carried on. This is bravery in action. She is such a role model for following your dreams without hurting others. Incredible journey, her internal and external journey.

Fast into the Night is written in the present tense, which takes us into the challenges she faced, the preparation, the cold, the details and all the emotional side of running Iditarod as a rookie.

“Sixteen huskies donning crimson harnesses charge into the chute.”

The first chapters were so immersive: Moderow, before being sent on the way, spent time with each of her dogs, one by one, walking along the team and so introducing us to all sixteen of the family. “Kanga is a serious brown girl with a tan trim. She knows more about Iditarod than I do. Juliet is my playful Tinker Bell. She’s the whimsical cheerleader, my tiny grey spitfire who runs up front with a light-hearted disposition.”

Her first few hours set the pace for the next two weeks on the trail. “When the team scrambles up an icy bank and the sled ricochets around a tight, dark wooded corner, I exhale relief.”

Yes, so did I. Time for another glass of wine and a snack. The snow still fell outside my apartment in town. I had it easy. Moderow didn’t.

“I cover my nose with my neck gaiter, and my goggles fog up. To take them off would risk my eyes, so every few minutes I scrape ice from the lenses with the back of my arctic mittens.”

Oh boy. Details such as those kept my turning pages, her story just stunned me, and the level of cold and endurance was beyond impressive. “A granola bar – it’s frozen and the last thing I need is a broken tooth. So I stuff it into my armpit to thaw.”

As you do, nothing unusual, right? Right. Sheesh. I read on, huddled in my little bed with my two well-fed huskie mutts on the end of my bed. No, we’d not be trying this ourselves.

Iditarod is a challenge obviously, all of it, that is the physical conditions but also there are the emotional hurdles she faced. There were times when she had to make potentially life-altering decisions when so completely drained and exhausted that clear thought was not easily grasped. What was best for each of her dogs? When should she ‘scratch’ even if the volunteers showed no compassion for her place and experience? I wanted her to make it, I knew she did from the blurb on the back, but I wanted to know how, how did she do it? What kept her going?

“I stand alongside my dogs and everything is quiet. It’s the profound stillness that arrives in a flash, when everything changes.”

You’ll have to read it yourselves if you want to find out how. Please do.

9781597099769_FC

Red Hen Press

Memoir

$16.95, 288 pp.

ISBN 978-1-59709-976-9

Tentative publication date: 6/2018

Bryan Hurt’s Everyone Wants to be Ambassador to France

Book Review: Wonderfully absurd and weird stories fill this collection by Bryan Hurt.

His characters range from astronaut-artists, a British aristocrat with his adopted girls, a goat and seagull questioning the after life on the edge of a cliff, and a run-down American writer panicking about the demands of his agents.

The opening lines are often so succinct and direct that Hurt pulls you in immediately: “Thomas Day was rich but very ugly.” Oh really? I wanted to know more, would he be an interesting man to know? I kept reading.

The simplicity of language is compelling, it’s concise and precise as short stories need to be, there are no wasted words. There is a great rhythm and Hurt comes across as a narrator to trust. We know where we are immediately upon starting a new story, he grounds us as readers yet there are such great turns and unexpected digressions and drifts that demand you pay attention. I did.

Panic Attack is one of the more touching stories for me with a great moment of tenderness. That’s all I’m saying. Look for it.

Hurt plays with the form of these short stories, more so in the second half of the collection, as if he’s trusting us to come along with him however it now looks. The Contract follows a CEO’s own contract with life and relationships, and yes, form follows content. There are more pieces in the remainder of the book where form changes to suit each story, such as lists in some places, or when some paragraphs have their own titles and other paragraphs are seperated with numbers. Titles are evocative although mostly in hindsight, you read the chapter and then the title will pop out at you again, such as the last chapter, Good With Words. Here is our struggling writer overcome with the demands of an agent hungry for more words. He turns to his toddler once back home. There he is reminded of the power of language. He asks his child, “tell me something about love.”

“Mama.”

Red Hen

978-59709-077-0

168 pp $15.95

Tentative pub date: 6/28/2018