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The Re-Learning Curve

May has been a pretty exciting month for me. I launched this website, started querying my novel and working on other writing projects, and the Cinescopers podcast returned after a three year hiatus. While some of these experiences are brand new, others are old hat—or they were when I was in practice. Reconnecting with old skills to work on these projects has been something of a challenge.

Podcasting again after three years has been part of that re-learning curve. We’ve recorded three episodes so far and while there are a lot of things I remember, some of those memories are vague, and some things that came naturally to me at the end of our first podcast run now feel foreign.

One of those foreign elements is our intro and outro. I was perfectly comfortable listening to my co-host run through the familiar spiel, but when he asked me to do it for the second episode, I froze. This was a script I knew cold at the end of our 2013 run, and even after Matthew provided a script, I was still struggling with pacing and naturalness and, basically, confidence. Podcasting isn’t part of my regular routine any more and while I’m not quite starting from scratch, I’m not coming from a place that feels like I have three years of experience.

I had a similar feeling when I went to grad school and had to write papers again. It had been eleven years since my undergraduate degree, and while I’d been working in academic publishing, it wasn’t a career in writing papers and following MLA style for citations. I had done this for years as a student! I had been confident writing papers! I had been good at it, judging by my grades! But those first few papers for grad school were like pulling teeth, and I felt awkward (the writing felt awkward) and I had to check and double check and triple check to make sure I was getting the MLA formatting right. The first semester was rough as I relearned the lingo, the thinking, and basically how to approach this very different kind of writing.

Writing short fiction has been a similar struggle. I’ve been focused on long-form fiction for a number of years, so trying to come back to smaller ideas, to constrain the story, to only hint at the larger world, has been a special kind of torture. I’ve read expertly written short fiction to help inspire myself and to analyze how other people do it, and yet when it comes to applying those techniques, I falter. I’ll think I have an angle on how to tackle my idea, and then, 7,000 words later I have people telling me I need another 3,000 words or more. How do you write short fiction? I feel like I’ve completely lost the thread on working that out. (This may be a conversation that is To Be Continued as I try to tackle more short fiction.)

I feel like I’m constantly judging myself against my previously perceived expertise. “I used to know how to do this” is a constant refrain. It’s difficult to know something used to be familiar and then struggle at it now. The set backs have a way of diminishing successes and enhancing flaws.

But here’s the thing I need to remember: It took me the first semester of grad school to get the hang of writing papers, but I did it. I even remembered how to make the process less painful (even if I was still a bit dodgy on citations). I have to assume the same will happen for podcasting and writing short fiction. It may take a few months for me to get comfortable behind a microphone and to relearn the rhythms of our podcast, but it will happen. For short stories? Oh man, if someone can tell me I’ll have it within a year, that would be swell. I suppose the key is patience. I need to be patient with myself while I’m on this re-learning curve and trust that with enough repeated practice, I’ll get the hang of it again.

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A Writer Who Reads to Write

I previously mentioned that before the MFA program I wasn’t reading very much. There was one year when I read no more than 10 books, and another in which I think I only reread Harry Potter. By contrast, the MFA program at UCF requires a lot of reading. In addition to literature classes and assigned readings, they require a book list of at least fifty books alongside the creative thesis. These books are meant to inform the content of your thesis and the development of your craft. Ideally I would read books by authors I wanted to emulate, or that had content similar to what I was writing, or that could be used for research or further craft development.

“Sure,” I thought, as I read the requirement, “makes sense.” And I got started putting together a book list. I had no idea the way these books would wind up impacting my novel.

I read The Difference Engine and Nights at the Circus and dared myself to write descriptions as vividly as Gibson and Sterling and Carter.

I read The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey and carefully noted passages related to description of automaton restoration to figure out how to provide enough technical information to show a character’s mastery without boring the reader.

I read Victorian novels and wound up getting obsessed with how the structure differs from contemporary literature.

I read Ready Player One and reconnected with modern plot structure, and understood how to write a story with an escalating menace rather than a Big Bad.

I read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and starting thinking more and more about twists and defying expectations, and nearly ripped apart my novel to add a second narrator (it didn’t need it, but I considered it, and in considering it evaluated the choice for a single narrator).

I read Shanna Swendenson’s Rebel Mechanics and found a novel that was sort of like mine (but not at all), but it made me feel like there was a market for the novel I was writing.

I read steampunk short story collections and K. W. Jeter and Neal Stephenson and Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest. All of it—everything I read—I devoured in a new way. I wasn’t reading for pleasure. I wasn’t reading to consume. I was reading to learn and I was reading to apply what I was learning directly to what I was writing. At the end of every book, I sat back and I asked, “What did I learn from reading this? How can I apply that to my manuscript?”

Reading nonfiction for research always made sense to me, but I’d never thought about how reading fiction can also be research. It’s more than just knowing my genre and being familiar with writers I want to sit beside on a bookshelf. It’s experiencing how they put together their stories, characters, worlds, and even sentences. It requires deliberate reading and self-direction, but it is one of the MFA “tricks” I’ll be continuing. I’m not just a writer who reads, I’m a writer who reads to write.

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MFA Proving Ground

You might be asking, “why did a genre writer who doesn’t want to teach decide to get an MFA?” That is a question I asked myself a few times (especially when I was struggling to find a thesis director), but the truth is that for me, an MFA wasn’t about starting an academic career, and it wasn’t about the degree. It was about framing myself to take the plunge to be a full-time writer.

My decision to pursue an MFA grew out of a desire to change my life. I had moved in with my parents after a divorce and while my job was in publishing, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I wanted to write, but abandoning financial security was terrifying, not to mention that at the time I was fighting through such extensive creative and confidence roadblocks that I was certain to fail if I went it alone.

Which is why an MFA program was perfect for me.

An MFA program would provide the structure I needed to get serious about writing. I would write a novel! I would be a daily writer! I would write 5 or 6 hours a day! I would write 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 words daily! I would be utterly prolific!

Okay, perhaps some of those ambitions were a little naive, but the MFA did provide structure—I am highly motivated by good grades, after all. Academic success was a familiar motivator, wholly removed from the fear of publication and hunting for an agent, so as I wrote, the fear of producing content melted and changed. The more I wrote, the more I felt I could write. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself because in the first semester there was actually very little writing and a LOT of reading.

Reading to Write

While the program I attended at University of Central Florida is workshop focused, there are still a number of literature classes to take and books to read. And from someone who had been working 50-hour work weeks and trying to salvage a failing marriage, it had been a long time since I’d read more than ten books in a year. I was going to have to read ten books a semester. For one class. Eep! The first year was an adjustment, which meant that while I was writing, it was in no way daily or prolific. I wrote the drafts and revisions necessary for class requirements but I didn’t write much beyond that, and I didn’t write regularly.

At the time it was frustrating, but as I accepted my situation I came to understand the benefits of the mountain of reading. It helped me get back in touch with analyzing literature to be able to extract ideas and skills to use in my own writing, and—the big one—it taught me to manage my time and to read regularly again. Reading regularly as a writer is important. You don’t have to read a book a week, or anything else as crazy as the expectations of an MFA program, but reading regularly—within your genre, out of it, and books on craft—is important to developing a writing life.

A Writing Life

After a year and a half in the program, after getting more comfortable with the pressure of writing for my degree and more confident about my ability to write on demand, in January 2016 I started writing every day. It was a “commitment” I usually made and ignored, so when I accidentally discovered that I’d written daily that first week, I challenged myself to write daily for the rest of the month. Imagine my delight when I succeeded! Then I decided to do another month. And another. And then the year.

Over the next year, writing daily, I completed a novel for my master’s thesis. I wasn’t writing 3,000 words a day (I’m still not), and there were plenty of days when I wrote only 300 words a day, but I wrote daily, I had a schedule for completing revisions, I had a full-time writing life, and—most importantly—I had an idea of how to translate what I’d done during the MFA into a routine that didn’t include the safety-net motivation of an academic setting.

Could I have achieved this without the structure of an MFA program? Maybe, but I honestly don’t think so. The program allowed me to build confidence in myself while testing out the waters of being a full-time writer. It provided external motivation that wasn’t as nerve-wracking as other external motivation (needing to pay bills and eat, among them). I could quit my job and dedicate myself to full-time writing because I felt like I was working toward something else (a degree)*. The MFA program was a proving ground, and of all the lessons I learned, the ones about how to organize myself for a writing life were the most valuable.

*I should note that I had funding that covered tuition, health insurance, and a stipend, so my MFA pursuit was relatively risk-free. Not everyone has that luxury, so I don’t think an MFA is for everyone. School is expensive, yo.