Writing: Good Article on MFA Programs

The latest issue of Atlantic magazine apparently has an article about the rise of MFA programs in this country and what it all means.  Actually, it doesn’t tell us what it all means because nobody really knows what it all means.  There seems to be much consternation around the idea that scads more people are getting MFAs, but fewer and fewer people are reading literature.

Well, duh.  It’s because we’re all reading blogs.

No, honestly, I didn’t read the whole article, but I read the article about the article on the Atlantic website.  The fact that we now read online articles about print magazine articles says something about the state of writing and reading in this country, doesn’t it?  I’m not sure what, but something.

Having read the article about the article, I don’t feel compelled to read the actual article, so if that was their tactic, they failed.  The article about the article made some good points about MFAs, though.

"Trying to assess graduate programs is like rating the top ten party schools," the author of the original article, Edward J. Delany says.  (For the record, the online article is by Jessica Murphy.  I just saw a post on plagarism on one of the fifty millon blogs I read yesterday and I don’t want to inadvertently engage in said practice.)

Delaney also says that 30 years ago there were 50 MFA programs, now there are somewhere around 300.  (When I started the brief-residency MFA program at Spalding in 2001, there were, like, 7 brief-residency programs.  Last time I counted, which was a while ago, there were well over 25.)

One of my favorite ideas in the article is voiced by D.W. Fenza, the director of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (which used to be just Associated Writing Programs but apparently has broadened its scope;it has a kick-ass conference every year and next year it will be in New York City so everyone should go).

Fenza says that there are now so many MFA recepients that we are "part of a great democratic experiment in public access to higher education and the arts.  [They] are part of a new plurality."

Damn!  I always wanted to be part of a plurality and now I are.  All kidding aside, it is fascinating to ponder what the droves of newly minted MFAs, mean for literature and the arts. 

Anyway, the article is worth taking a look at, and you can do that here. 

And thanks to my buddy Roy Burkhead for sending the article to me in the first place.

Power Writing and Creativity 4: The Next Three Keys

Happy Monday…and welcome to the next installment of my series on creativity.  You can read Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.

So…Monday.  Some people may have awakened this morning and groaned at the thought of another work week beginning.  Others may be excited and happy at the thought.  Hopefully you fall into the latter group.  I like to believe that we creative types approach life, including Mondays, with zeal.  What’s that?  Do I hear you groaning again?  Perhaps you need some more Keys to Creativity to perk up your day.  Here you go:

7.  Small Steps

Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Rome really wasn’t built in a day, and your creative projects won’t be either.  Don’t get so caught up in the big picture that you forget to take the small, repeated steps.  Make them as small as possible.  Don’t think about the entire novel, think about the next scene.  Don’t obsess about the entire canvas, focus on the next color of paint.  Break things down into their smallest components.  This seems so obvious–and yet I have to remind myself of it again and again.

8.  Make It A Habit

The self-help experts say it takes 21 days to create a new habit.  Thus, if you make a date with yourself to write your novel or plan that garden, or work on that song you’re writing, and keep the date every day for 21 days, at the end of it you’ll have established a new habit.  Don’t know if the 21 day thing is true or not, as I always forget to keep track, but I do know that consistency and the dreaded D word, discipline, are actually bedrock elements of creativity.  This is counter-intuitive, but true.  As I’ve said (over and over, to the point of causing retching) creativity is active.  You’ve got to just do it.  And the more you just do it, the easiest it gets. 

9.  Use the Power of Momentum

The really cool thing is that once you are consistently using your creativity, critical mass kicks in and you get momentum on your side.  Momentum is what happens when you get the perfect idea for chapter ten when you’re in the middle of writing chapter nine.  It’s what happens when you "hear" the perfect line of dialogue for your screenplay while you are writing the description for the scene.  Once your mind is engaged with the work on a regular basis, it will help you by sending you messages and ideas.  Apparently, the mind likes to be kept busy.  The flip side of this is familiar to anyone who has set aside a creative project–it takes awhile to get back into it.  You have to go back and re-read the entire novel in order to remember what you wrote, or you have to go back and review all the instructions on that sweater you are knitting.  It is ever so much easier to just stick to it. 

More keys to come on Wednesday and Friday!

Reasons Not To/To Write On A Hot Summer Saturday

To write or not to write on this beautiful day?  Let me detail the pros and cons:

5 Reasons Not To Write on A Hot Summer Saturday

1.  Because it’s hot, duh.

2.  Because I want to go play.

3.  Because I have an appointment with a trainer to kill, I mean coach, me at the gym.

4.  Because I have a party to attend!.

5.  Because I’m LAZY.

5 Reasons To Write on A Hot Summer Saturday

1.  Because I’m obsessed

2.  Because I can’t seem to stay away from my computer.

3. Because Emma Jean, the protagonist of my novel is calling.  She insists her novel be finished by the end of the summer.

4.  Because the blogosphere never sleeps.

5.  Because by saying I’m writing I can get out of so many things…like paying bills.  Or doing dishes.  Or grocery shopping.

After much thought and deliberation, I have to say–writing wins!   Obviously.  Since I just wrote this post.

Power Writing and Creativity 3: The Second Three Keys

Ta-da: the next three keys to ceaseless creativity (Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?  Ceaseless. Creativity.  Isn’t that what we all crave?  Well, besides the usual other suspects.  Which, come to think of it, generally distract us from ceaseless creativity.  Ah well, one cannot live by creativity alone.  Though one can try.  Until one gets hungry….for any number of things.

Enough.  Here are the next three keys.

4.  Just Do It.

This goes hand in hand with Key #3: Do It Badly.  The truth of the matter is, you gotta just do it.  And do it again and again.  It is that simple and that difficult.  Sometimes just doing it is the easiest thing in the world, and sometimes it is the hardest.  I do not know why this is so.  Sometimes I wring my hands and emote and pace and get down on my hands and knees and scrub the floor, all in an attempt to not just do it.  And then when I finally get around to doing it, I wonder why on earth I whined and moaned for so long.  Because once I’m in the middle of doing it, I love it more than anything on earth.   So why I have to re-convince myself to go back to it over and over again, I do not know.  If this happens to you, take heart and know that it is normal, at least in the realm of writer normal.  Which, I have to say is not the same as normal normal, if you know what I mean.

5.  Process, Not Product

When my daughter was getting her post-bacc certificate in photography, which was close to getting a MFA, this was one of her mantras.  It has always been one of my mantras, too, and I have the hand-painted pillow to prove it.  I actually wrote about this in another post recently, but it is such a bedrock tenet of creativity that I have to mention it again.  Just remind yourself that it is not about the finished product, it is about the process of doing it.  It really is.  Trust me.  Ironically, by focusing on the process, you’ll end up with a much better product.  It’s another one of those mysterious creativity things.  I don’t pretend to understand them, I just obey them.

6.  Do The Work, Don’t Judge It

Goes along with #5.  If you are focused on product while you are in the process of writing, you are likely to be judging it.  Don’t do that.  Just do the work.  It is akin to learning to be in the moment.  I will confess here that I am a meditation slacker (I know, I know, I’ve got a slacker list a mile long–Buddhism and yoga and meditation being tops on it.  What does that say about me?).  But when it comes to writing, there’s nothing I love better than kicking into that flow and being so in the moment that time passes without me even noticing it.  That is only possible, my friends, when you are in the moment, one with the words, and Not Judging them.  Judging is for later.  Its hell when its judging time, but we are not talking about that now.

Stay tuned.  On Monday I will present three more Keys to Creativity.

5 Writing Rules To Break

While writing my series on creativity, I started thinking about breaking rules.  (Click here to read Part One of the series, and click here to read Part Two.  Part Three will be posted tomorrow.)  So, today, I want to talk about breaking writing rules.

In yesterday’s post on creativity, I mentioned that one key to creativity is that there are no rules.  When it comes to writing, however, you’ll find plenty of rules.  Way too many, in my opinion.  In writing, you’ll find rules about grammar, rules about style, and rules about publishing. 

I, however, believe that rules are made to be broken.  And so, without further ado, here is the Official Word Strumpet Guide to Rules That Can (And Should) Be Broken:

Rule #1:  Use Semi-colons.

My Word grammar checker is forever trying to force semi-colons on me.  I am strong, though, and I refuse to let those little buggers have their way with me.  The semi-colon is just a wee bit too formal and proper for my taste.  I like my grammar a little looser and wilder.  You can have your semi-colons, I’ll take a comma any day.

Rule #2:  Obey "No Simultaneous Submissions" Guidelines.

Puh-leeze.  I could have grandchildren living in a colony on Mars by the time some editors and agents would deign to get back to me about a submission.  Meanwhile, I’m supposed to be a good girl and not send my work anywhere else?  I don’t think so.  Editors say they hate it when they find a good story, only to contact the writer and learn its been accepted elsewhere.  So?  Then get your butts in gear faster.  As for the poor writer who has the awful dilemma of a story being desired by two editors:  We. Should. All. Be. So. Lucky.

Rule #3:  Don’t Use Adverbs. 

"I really, truly, love adverbs," I said affirmatively.  Okay, over usage of adverbs is bad, I agree, but then over usage of anything except red wine at the end of a long day is bad.  It is an egregious sin to use adverbs with dialogue tags, but a few adverbs sprinkled here and there in other parts of your prose never hurt a thing.  She said positively.

Rule #4: Write What You Know.

Excuse Me?  I wouldn’t have a job if I always wrote about what I know.  In the last few months I’ve written about global warming, Voodoo, quilting, spiritual leaders, selling good on ebay, kitchen remodeling, bathroom accessories, roof racks, astrology, and piano music, to name only a few.  I knew a little about some of those topics when I started, but certainly not very much.  Let’s face it, roof racks are not something I’ve ever thought much about, let alone know anything on.  T

This writing commandment clearly (you see how well that adverb works there?) came about in a simpler time, back before the internet, in the days before we had Wikipedia.  Those were the days before it was possible to learn everything you need to know about any subject by Googling it. 

And, let’s face it, if you write fiction about only what you know, ie, your life, you’re going to end up hurting a lot of people. 

Rule #5:  All SEO Writing is Fluff.

I will grant you that most of it is, indeed, fluff.  And some of it is just plain crap. However, my rule when writing keyword dense copy is to give the content some value, no matter how minor.  I admit, sometimes the value is minuscule.  But approaching the writing of SEO copy is this manner helps raise it overall.

Anybody else have a sacred cow they want to slay?

Power Writing and Creativity 2: The First Three Keys

On Monday, I wrote the introduction to this series on creativity, and it came out rather longer than I had originally anticipated. Hey, it’s a topic I’m passionate about. (Further proof of this, if you need it, is that I originally was going to present 12 Keys. But I kept thinking of more that are vital.) To read the intro first, click here. To read the Three-Fold Writer’s Path, in which I detail how creativity fits into overall scheme of the writing world, click here. And now, ta-da, the first three keys:

1. Be A Beginner.

The Zen Buddhists talk a lot about beginner’s mind. I am a buddhism slacker, but this concept is called Shoshin, and it is a good one. The idea of it is to be eager. Be open. Don’t have expectations. Don’t think, do. Have a sense of wonder. This is an especially vital key for the professional, who may develop a mind-set that everything he does must be perfect the first time out. Banish those thoughts. A beginner wouldn’t expect to be perfect. Nor should you—no matter where you fall on the beginner to expert scale.

2. There Are No Rules (but make some for yourself if it makes you feel better).

Who says you can’t write a novel in 100 viewpoints? The result may not work, and it may not be particularly publishable, but it might lead to something that is. Forget everything you know about the rules (see #1) and just go for it. See what happens. Sometimes this key is a bit much for people. The lack of rules is scary. So make some up for yourself–like, every sentence must start with a word that is capitalized. There, does that make you feel better?

3. Do It Badly.

The idea that everything has to be perfect is a huge creativity killer. So, go for the opposite. Write one bad page. Draw one crappy sketch. Sing a song off-key. The world didn’t stop, did it? And go back and take a look at that dreadful page you just wrote. Hmmm, might you not be able to use that first sentence? With a few changes, does the third paragraph work fairly well for the opening? I thought so. Writing badly is an entry point into your work. Put something, anything, down on the page. Then you have words to work with. And that is a wonderful thing.

Okay, those are the first three keys. I’ll have the next three for you on Friday. See you then–and if anyone has any tips or thoughts about creativity, feel free to share.

Cross-Genre Writing

As I’ve mentioned before, I attended a brief-residency MFA program that emphasized the inter-relatedness of the arts.  Over the ten intense days of the residency, besides attending workshops and lectures on writing, and, ahem, staying up late socializing, we visiting museums and went to plays and musical performances.

Yes, it was way too much fun to be legal.  And I learned a helluva lot about writing (and teaching writing).

Every residency we had a cross-genre exercise that everyone had to take part in.  So, one October we all had to write poetry, and the next May we’d all have to write a children’s story.  And so forth.  This was often the cause of much good-natured groaning.

However, its been almost four years since I graduated, and more and more I see the wisdom of this approach.  Because, really, all writing is connected.

I just started reading Dan Kennedy’s The Ultimate Sales Letter (I know, once again, I’m late to the party), and he has a whole section on "Get ‘Into’ The Customer."  He urges copywriters to figure out what potential customers are angry about, what they fear, what they desire.  Then he talks about a visualization technique whereby he imagines that customer opening the mail, in full detail.  Does she stand by the wastebasket as she opens mail, tossing things in after a quick glance? What is she thinking about as she opens the mail?  What are her concerns?  Kennedy’s goal is to paint as full a picture of this potential customer as possible.

As I was reading this, I was so struck by how similar this exercise is to developing characters for fiction.  When writing a novel, it is important to know your main characters so thoroughly (after all, you are going to spending a great deal of time with them) that you know every details of their lives, loves, and daily routine. 

You will know the name of your character’s best friend from childhood, and the street he grew up on.  You’ll know his religious affiliation, the kind of car he drives, and where he works.  You’ll know that he a  bizarre affection for teddy bears and always drinks beer on Sunday.  And that’s just the beginning–because once you’ve figured out all the surface stuff, you’re going to go a layer deeper and figure out the why of all of this surface stuff.

So its the same whether you are sussing out the psyche of a potential customer or designing the inner life of a character.

I’ve taken to calling myself a Renaissance writer in a niche world (I’m going to be writing an article on this soon) because I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t have to wear many hats to make a living at this game. 

And the reason why we writers can do this is because, it’s all related.  The same basic rules guide every genre.  Physicists are discovering that we are all related and even the slightest, most inconsequential thing has an effect on the greater whole. 

Writing is just a hologram of that. And that is pretty damn cool. 

P.S.–(The PS is an important aspect of the winning sales letter, but I honestly just remembered this).  I wrote a similar post over at my poor neglected sister blog, A Freelance Writer’s Life.    You can read it here.

P.S.S. (Or should it be P.P.S.? I can never remember) I really am going to resuscitate A Freelance Writer’s Life.  Truly.  I have big plans for it, including a very long, multi-part series on freelancing on the Internet AND other excited stuff for writers.  So stay tuned.

Ernest Hemingway Lives!

One of the best places on the planet is Sun Valley, Idaho. Baldmountainid

I lived there for a few months years ago, and my daughter recently spent a winter there.

More importantly, Ernest Hemingway lived there off and on and it is the place he chose to die. To commemorate Hemingway and honor his time in the Wood River Valley, there is an annual Hemingway Festival. I’ve never been, but it looks awesome.

This year’s theme is Hemingway in Paris, for all you Francophiles out there. The event features many scholars who have written books about Hem’s time in Paree. There are also readings, a screening of A Moveable Feast, and get this–a special dinner at Hemingway’s home. That would be Hemingway’s. Home. That alone makes it worthwhile.

Last time I was in Sun Valley, I visited a couple of places related to Hemingway. You can visit his grave at the city cemetery. Its i next to his last wife, Mary’s grave, a simple slab beneath two tall shady trees. Easy to find without directions. The day I was there, it was covered with pennies and a solitary rose. I tossed pennies for publishing luck for me and my other writer friends.

This is a photo of his burial that Roy Burkhead sent me.

The other spot is the Hemingway Memorial. It is located off Trail Creek Road past the resort a little ways, again, not hard to find. And it is simply one of the most beautiful spots in the world. It features a bust of Hem above a sparkling stream and says the following:

Best of all he loved the fall
the leaves yellow on cottonwoods
leaves floating on trout streams
and above the hills
the high blue windless skies
…now he will be part of them forever

Oh, this makes me want to be there. Hemingway wrote this himself as a eulogy for a friend killed in a hunting accident.

For a nice description of all the Hemingway sites in Sun Valley and some literary and historical background, go here.

Photo of Bald Mountain by Greg L. Wright, published here under Creative Commons 2.5 license, via (where else?) Wikipedia.

Power Writing: 15 Keys to Unleashing Your Creativity

Welcome to a new series on creativity and how to unleash it in your writing. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be presenting the 15 crucial keys to consistently accessing your creativity.

First, though, I want to talk about creativity in general. I consider it to be one branch of the Three-Fold Writer’s Path, and in many ways, it is the most crucial. You can be the most talented writer in the world, but if you are not sitting down and using that talent, what use is it? If you don’t develop ways to convince yourself to return to the computer, over and over, on bad days and good, your talent will lay fallow, never to see the light of day.

And in my book there are few things sadder. Well, war and starving children in Africa, but you know what I mean. In developed countries, I’m convinced that the cause of much of our contemporary angst stems from people not exercising their creativity. Unexpressed creativity starts as a longing and turns into depression, or worse, perhaps, rage.

It is hard to be creative on a regular basis. Creativity is active. It requires us to think, to do, to act, to, well, create. These days, there are so many wonderful passive activities available to us that do not require action—surfing the internet, watching one of 500 available channels on TV, to name only a couple—that creating is practically a radical act.

Which makes it all the more important to do it regularly.

Creativity is a muscle. It gets stronger as you use it. When you go to the gym regularly and lift weights you build your physical muscles. So, too, with creativity. When you express yourself regularly, it becomes easier and more comfortable. The words flow and you develop a facility with them. The paint glides across the canvas. It doesn’t take you hours to find all your supplies. Ideas come as if by magic.

The opposite is true, too. Once you get away from the habit of creativity, it becomes ever more difficult to return. You have no idea where your drawing pencils are. You can’t, for the life of you, recall where you intended to go next in your novel. And what on earth were you trying to evoke with that mess of color on the canvas?

It only gets harder. And that longing inside you will grow and grow…until it becomes something else, something you probably really don’t want to allow to fester. So why not take the path that seems harder at first but is actually the easiest?

It is ultimately the easiest path because it leads you home to your heart and your soul and the very essence of your being. Which, in the end, is really all there is.

Check back here on Wednesday to read Power Writing: The First Three Keys.

Amazing Novel: The Master and Margarita

Bulgakov David the Poet wrote and told me he was reading an incredible Russian novel.  "What a novel this is," he said.  And because I admired that nice turn of phrase I ordered the book from Amazon.

It is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Written as a satire during the Stalin years, and because of that unpublished for thirty years, the novel is about the arrival of the devil in Moscow and the mayhem that ensues.  There is also a storyline set in Jerusalem about Pontius Pilate meeting with Yeshua Ha-Nozri (sorta Jesus, but sorta not).  Apparently there is a third storyline, which I’ve not yet reached (I’m only a couple chapters in) about Margarita learning to fly.  Can’t wait for that one.

The reviews on Amazon refer to this novel as being life-changing, and everyone’s favorite novel ever, etc, etc.  Now I know we have to take reviews on Amazon with a huge dollop of salt but in this case I think the reviewers are writing truthfully.  There’s no reason to hype Bulgakov because he’s been dead since 1940.

My edition of the novel has good annotations and a nice afterword, but I thought I might want a bit more and I’ve found some great links.  There’s Wikipedia, of course, and I also found a great site called Master and Margarita.  Check it out here.  It’s worth it to go read the welcome page just for the romance of it all.