Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Of Bathwaters, Babies and Tight Sleeping -- not what you think!

I love discovering the original meaning of expressions, sayings and words we routinely utter without ever knowing why. The real, and often surprising origins, often leave me speechless, and I usually encounter them in the oddest of ways.

A few weeks ago my husband and I took our sons to a local historic site we had long known about but never visited (think Manhattan residents who rarely even glance at the Empire State Building) –
Historic Speedwell, birthplace of the telegraph system that first made Morse code workable. In addition to the ironworks and other industry-oriented buildings, is a restored home and in one of the bedrooms was a round, stout hammered metal tub with a lip seat on one side and on the other, a spout. Bathtime, according to the teenage docent, consisted of filling the tub and then each family member, in descending order of age, took their turns washing. When finally the youngest child, usually a toddler or older baby, finished, the tub was tipped, the water draining from the spout.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I immediately brightened, having now an authentic scenario to conjure when I used that expression. The boys predictably didn't find this so interesting; which shows my age I suppose more than any literary bent.

Next was another bedroom, set up to resemble one shared by several children, and the docent peeled up the straw-stuffed mattress to reveal ropes crisscrossed frame to frame. She picked up an odd looking wooden thing, called it a key, and demonstrated how, about once a week, those ropes needed to be pulled taut to ensure a restful and supportive night's sleep.

Sleep tight.

Both a practical expression: tighten the bed ropes or your back will be sorry – and a sincere sentiment: hope you have a comfortable night's sleep. See guys, I said to the boys: it doesn't mean pull the covers around tight after all.
They seemed both intrigued and abashed.

I felt really smart about my new Sleep Tight knowledge until last week when I read
The Kitchen God's Wife, in which Amy Tan conjures pre-World War II China, and relates the lovely custom of snugly wrapping small children for sleep individually in their own personal quilts, even when sharing a bed. Nowhere in Tan's text does it suggest the Chinese have an expression for "sleep tight" that refers to this tradition, but don't you think it's possible?

And now, please feel completely free to leave a comment about how wrong I (and the folks at Speedwell) might be on all counts. Because if there's one thing I know, and love, about language, is that very often, there's more than one explanation, more than one way to skin a cat, that it's sometimes six of one and half-a-dozen of another, that….well, you get the idea.

What's your favorite unusual origin of a common expression?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

From Print to Screen?

►I'm not a full time working print journalist, but Paul Conley raises an important point. Where will all the print reporters and editors, whose jobs are quickly disappearing, go to find work? Every single day, as part of my gig tracking industry news for a media-centric newsletter, I read about another major print news organization – newspapers mostly, but some magazines too – laying off dozens and sometimes hundreds. Sure, some find positions online, even before staff cuts come their way. But what about the rest? As always, Conley, an astute industry observer, has given it some thought.

►Could it be studio heads learned something from the writer's strike? Something along the lines of, "What do you know? It all starts with the writing?" Hmm. When I read something like this, I get the idea they may be getting the message. I've got two thoughts about this trend of Hollywood trawling for scripts from the fiction shelves and magazine racks: One, Hooray for my friends whose novels and longer magazine articles may get a second life on the screen (small or big). On the other hand, is this a way for the studios to jump right over the heads of experienced, established and higher-paid screenwriters and instead pluck development properties from a group – that would be the much lower paid novelists and freelance writers – who don't command the bigger paychecks?

Or....maybe all of the soon-to-be out-of-work print journalists ought to take screenwriting classes?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tuesday Tips

►If, like me, you still have a bunch of VHS tapes in your family room tucked behind the DVDs, and you want to toss the phone when you can't break through a company's automated voice-prompt system and get an actual human voice, you're going to love this: the techie wizards who control "content" (and thus our entire future writing lives) are slowly abandoning MS WORD and all future copy (sorry, I mean content) may have to be entered straight to a "content platform."

►Readings by faculty members and visiting writers at the Stonecoast MFA winter residency are now
up in podcast form over at the Maine Humanities Council. A few I especially enjoyed were visiting novelist Tayari Jones, and the 3-5 minute "flash readings" by several faculty members.

►If I were going to be in the Los Angeles area this coming weekend, you'd definitely find me at the
Los Angeles Times' Festival of Books. Check it out, my West Coast friends!

►Your book coming out soon? You might want to get this
free email newsletter, with ideas even first time authors with barely any budget can do on their own to build book buzz. (Sign-up is at the bottom of the hard-sell home page; but the newsletter delivers).

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hug a Librarian Today - or at least say something nice

Quick, besides your local independent bookstore, your writing group, and your local writing center (if you are lucky enough to have one nearby), as a writer, what's your most important local resource?

If you answered your local library, then stop in some time this week and say thank you – maybe to the reference librarian you pester when your research is bogged down, or the children's specialist who keeps your little ones engaged (and fertilizes the next generation of readers), or the inter-loan expert who tracks down those obscure out-of-print texts. Or, the web wizard who helped you figure out the best way to word your searches.

Where would writers be without libraries and the folks who work there?

At my local library, they set up cookies and coffee yesterday to
celebrate National Library Week. Tomorrow, I’m bringing them flowers.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Poems, Writing Together, Prizes and One Peeve

►How to celebrate National Poetry Month? A bunch of MFA students sent out a request to 1,300 poets (well known and not so) asking them to write and send back one poem within six hours. See the 100 who responded at LeftFacingBird.

►What do you get when you combine blogs, group writing, traditional publishing, very non-conventional publishing, and a bunch of other stuff I don't even understand but find really intriguing. Find the answer at

►In case you missed the full list, check out the Pulitzer Prize

►Ok, this is not exactly on point, but…no wait a minute, yes it is. It's exactly on point because it addresses one of my pet peeves about modern literary contrivances aimed at kids.
Pete Sagal was right on when he observed, after seeing Horton Hears a Who,
"In a new subplot added by the filmmakers, the mayor of Whoville has 96 daughters. He has one son. Guess who gets all his attention? Guess who saves the day? Go ahead, think about it, I'll wait."

Sagal has three daughters, and I have two sons, but this irks me as much as it does him. He goes on,

"And while we're at it, how come a girl doesn't get to blow up the Death Star! Or send ET home? Or defeat Captain Hook! Or Destroy the Ring of Power!"

And, I might add, how come every kid protagonist in modern films has at least one dead parent, usually the mother?

Read the full text of Sagal's NPR rant

Ok, I feel better now.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Author Q/A: Nancy Peacock. Of Brooms and Rooms

Very few writers persevere at their craft without day jobs -- or night jobs, or flexible part-time jobs that pay the bills and make it possible to write that novel, memoir, essay collection, screenplay, or volume of poetry. Sometimes, those rent-paying gigs are writing-related: teaching, editing, proofreading. More often, you'll find writers in other jobs, across dozens of fields of endeavor.
Nancy Peacock wrote and published a debut novel, and a second novel, while cleaning houses and thought little about her chosen way to support herself. In fact, as an independent house cleaner, the job allowed her to make her own hours and choose (or tactfully reject) clients, and was mentally stress-less enough to allow her to return to her writing without the brain drain common among writers who work more traditional jobs in say, marketing or fundraising.

But others were not so blasé about her work choice. Her literary colleagues were always surprised to hear of it, and not long after a tabloid magazine shouted, "Here's One for the Books: Cleaning Lady Is an Acclaimed Author," Peacock knew what her next book would be.

A Broom of One's Own,
just out from Harper Perennial, is her memoir of house cleaning, stocked with equal parts behind-the-scene home-owner tales and Peacock's endeavors to maintain a literary life. She answered some of my questions recently.

Q & A with Nancy Peacock, author of
A Broom of One's Own

Lisa Romeo: When did you know you had a memoir? Were you collecting house-cleaning stories all along, or did you decide on a memoir and then go back to recollect the experiences?

Nancy Peacock: Although I'd quit housecleaning, I'd had to return to it, so I was still cleaning a few houses when I started working on Broom. Actually, a friend of mine suggested that I write about housecleaning, and once I thought about it, I decided that I really did have a lot to say on the subject of that particular job. I knew it was going to be part memoir and part writing manual. The main thing that I wanted to do, beginning with the first essay about being featured in the National Enquirer, was be open about my struggles with writing and earning a living. And show by example of my life, that a writing life can take many forms.

LR: You write about people whose houses you cleaned - and even if, as I'm assuming, their names and some identifying characteristics were changed -- did you let them know they were going to appear in your book? Was there any feedback, positive or negative, about that?

NP: I only cleared it with one client - and that was my ex-boyfriend and his wife, (who are) James and Lillian in the book. They were and still are my friends, and I wanted to make sure that they were comfortable with what I wrote. I've changed enough details - such as names and locations of houses - that it's unlikely anyone who knows these people would recognize them. I also told stories that only a housecleaner would know.

LR: In the book, you skirt around (artfully) many details of your personal life. Was that intentional or more organic? Are you not keen on revealing more personal areas of life in print?

NP: I mention my husband and my studio and my writing, but all that was organic to the material. The structure of the book dictated that I wouldn't go deeply into my own home - but trust me, it had (and has) its share of dust bunnies.

LR: You were fond of certain housecleaning customers, and rather disdainful of others (rightfully so). Did you find yourself, in the crafting process of the book, searching for extremes, or did they flow naturally from the memories?

NP: They flowed naturally. Some of the people whose houses I cleaned were extreme - for instance the family that walked around in states of semi-nudity. Others were extremely nice, respectful of me, and appreciative of my work. Both stood out in my mind, for different reasons, as unforgettable.

LR: What skills from your fiction writing did you find most helpful to you when writing this creative nonfiction book?

NP: Telling a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Because each chapter of Broom focused on a particular house and its people, as well as a particular struggle I was having with writing, I had to wrap each story up with beginning, middle and end.

LR: Likewise, were there any techniques or habits from fiction writing you found unhelpful in writing memoir?

NP: No - not really. Not in this book. I think that writing a more traditional memoir, about a time in life that was difficult, could be troublesome. I think the temptation to embellish could be great, as we've seen from the fake-memoir trend.

LR: What else about the nonfiction genre surprised you as a writer?

NP: It surprised me how easy it was to write this book. I am just finishing up my third novel, and I had forgotten what a struggle it is, in writing a novel, to keep all the threads of a story going - to make sure that the characters and storyline are consistent - and that things fit. It takes many, many drafts for the characters and plot to evolve. It can be quite frustrating at times, but I didn't have that to contend with while writing Broom.

LR: Was developing the "I" narrator character easy for you since as a novelist you are used to thinking of character development, or was it difficult to think of the "I" character as you and yet also as a character?

NP: I love first person.
Life Without Water is written in first person, but I had been writing in third until Broom. Of course the "I" of a memoir, is very different than the "I" of fiction. It wasn't hard in this case. I have written about myself before, somewhat unsuccessfully, but with Broom so much of the book focuses on the people in the houses that I cleaned. That gave the character of "me" plenty of places to push off of. Also - the "I" in this book really is me, so I didn't need to do any developing. I just remembered the stories and the way I felt at the time - and worked with that.

LR: I found the book a delightful balance between literary nonfiction and an engaging popular memoir to enjoy, say, on the beach. Was this a conscious strategy, to have artistic prose carrying an everywoman theme, but still be assessable to the casual reader?

NP: I never have a conscious strategy, but it's delightful to hear that it worked out.

LR: Did you write the book in the order it eventually appears, or was each chapter a separate piece, which you then rearranged? Or did you get the "bones" of the book down first, and then go back and develop each chapter more fully?

NP: For the first draft, I wrote one chapter a week. I began each one in long hand, in my journal. Then I entered it in the computer, edited it, and let it go. Once I had a collection, I went through with more editing. Then my husband and I went through it together for yet more editing. He's got a good eye for prose and I learned a lot working with him. (It's great to have free editing!) After the book was accepted, my editor at Harper Perennial, Carolyn Marino, suggested that I rearrange the essays to create more of a narrative arc. I think that improved the book a great deal.

LR: What are you at work on now?

NP: I am literally about to send my third novel to my agent, having completed the final draft today. I think I'm going to mine some of my short stories after that - and there's a grant I want to apply for which will take some time. In a few months I'll most likely start another novel.

LR: Any advice to first-time memoir writers?

NP: Be honest.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Still only Tuesday?

►Are you signed up to get a Poem-a-Day during April? I am and so far, so good.

►Authors, future authors and others are in varying states of
intrigue, anguish, and both over the announcement of a new Harper Collins imprint, which plans to eliminate advances in favor of profit sharing. Hmm.

►I love it when the mail carrier – whom I watch with way too much interest whilst procrastinating at my computer, positioned so that I can look out my front window – heads to my porch with an armload of small packages marked "media mail." This week he's already dropped off
Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith, by Suzanne Strempek Shea; and Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father's German Village, by Mimi Schwartz.

Suzanne, whose workshops I've learned from, writes about her adventure attending a Protestant service at a different (and in many cases, unusual) American church every Sunday for a year. Mimi, a generous and wise writer whom I once interviewed for a research project about women memoirists, undertook a 10+ year project, tracking down the stories her father told around her childhood kitchen table about a place where, "before Hitler, everyone got along." New Englanders might be able to catch one of Suzanne's readings/appearances, and for those of you in the Princeton, NJ area or New Hampshire, check out Mimi's calendar. When I get the chance to read them, I'll let you know more about each.

What are you looking forward to reading?

Friday, April 4, 2008

Freelancing and the MFA: Part II

Following up on Tuesday's post about my article at Mediabistro weighing MFA degrees for freelancers, I wanted to share the rest of the insights I gathered from interviews conducted while digging into this topic. This is an unusually long post for me. Hope you'll read it though, because the experts offer up some treasure.

Ann Hood, novelist, memoirist, essayist; on the MFA faculty at The New School and the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine.

Q: What can writers expect from an MFA program in preparing them to write for major media outlets?

Ann: I don't see MFA programs as training ground for this kind of writing. I view them as programs to teach writers critical thinking, to hone their writing skills, to read and write in the luxury of an intellectual and challenging community. Good writing rises to the top. If you learn to think critically about your own work and the work of others, to write honestly, and to strive for fine writing then your work will make its way to publishers and find a home.
If you see an MFA program as a ticket to publication, I think you are in the wrong business.

Q: What is the value, for a currently working freelance writer, who is considering an MFA program? Connections? Career boost? Craft?

Ann: Honing your writing craft is the value of an MFA program. If that is not a student's goal then they should take up a different vocation. Write well. Write honestly. The faculty and other "connections" will recognize and support this. Perhaps I am still too starry eyed, too idealistic. But I, like every other writer I know, struggles every day to write something that matters, something that hits an emotional chord, to write prose that is strong and well crafted. We do it because we love it. The side benefit is that is the writing that also sells.

Harriet Brown, editor of the anthology Mr. Wrong; edits the regional magazine Wisconsin Trails; has written for Vogue, the New York Times science section, Elle, and other major magazines; has an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College.

Q: Was the MFA degree helpful to you as a freelancer?

Harriet: I don't actually think it was helpful at all. I enjoyed working on the degree and it was a really good thing for me to do in terms of my writing, but in terms of getting writing assignments, it has definitely not helped me when querying.

Q: Are there any times it was helpful to have that credential on your resume?

Harriet: Only thing it's ever been good for has been when I apply for teaching jobs because it's a terminal degree and without the MFA I wouldn't even be considered. Other than that, it really hasn't been at all useful. Absolutely not

Q: When you look at queries in your job as magazine editor, what do you think when you see a writer has an MFA?

Harriet: As an editor, it means absolutely nothing. I look at every query pretty closely don't think it's ever changed my mind. All I care about is samples of what someone has written. If they can't put it on the page, I don't want them writing for me no matter how many degrees they have.

Q: Is it okay for a writer to mention the MFA in their query or poor form?

Harriet: It depends how it's put. Just mention it once, simply. When it comes to writing, you can talk about it or you can do it and credentials are part of talking about it. The proof is on the page. I've had queries from folks with no degrees at all and can tell right away from their query that they can do the job.

Eve Bridburg is a literary agent with Zachary, Shuster, Harmsworth, and the founder of Boston's Grub Street writing center; holds an MA in fiction from Boston University.

Q: I hear you're not a big fan of MFA programs.

Eve: Many have a lot of integrity and it can work for you. But writers should think about alternatives first and what will work in their own lives, really examine the decision. There are other ways; an MFA is not the only way. And it takes too much time – time that might be better spent joining writing groups and reading and networking. If you can afford an MFA without going into debt, then it's a great way to spend a long stretch of time writing. I got an MA and had a teaching fellowship. Most MFA programs are extremely expensive and don't offer funding, so when you are done, you end up behind in a way, not qualified to get a well paying job, bur really wanting to write, but needing to pay the debt.

Q: When a query or book proposal comes across your desk and the writer mentions they've earned an MFA, does it affect your interest level?

Eve: An MFA signals to an agent you are serious. But at then of the day, it doesn't matter what your credentials are if you can write. As an agent, the MFA might make a slight difference to me if you're writing narrative creative nonfiction, but still, it's all in the writing.

Q: What do you recommend then, instead of an MFA?

Eve: In most urban centers, you can get the same kind of rigor at a writers' center, at affordable prices. Places where you can have a really good instruction and meet other writers who will become your peer group and help you edit your work. There are major success stories coming out of places like Grub Street,
The Loft in Minneapolis, Hugo House in Seattle and The Writer's Studio in New York. It's the same level of rigor and intensity, among others with great writing skills, who are already published.

Alicia Miller is the senior editor of
Hemispheres, the inflight magazine of United Airlines.

Q: If a writer mentions their MFA in a query, does it matter?

Alicia: If we’re looking for a fiction piece or an essay for our First Person department, that detail may catch our eye. But even in those cases, we’re paying much more attention to where a writer has published, his or her relevant clips and expertise, and above all the quality and the fit of the pitch or submission itself.

Q: Does it bother you when a querying writer mentions this credential?

Alicia: Not at all, in the context of a quick run-through of the writer’s qualifications at the beginning or end of a query. But it seems that it would follow the same path as a resume: When you’ve just graduated from college, your education info is going to be at or near the top of your list of achievements, whereas it likely will get bumped down the line of things to highlight as work experience increases.

Q: Have you found that writers with MFA degrees have a better (or perhaps I should say, different) grasp on the craft aspects of writing?

Alicia: Honestly, I couldn’t tell you which of our regular writers have MFA degrees and which don’t, though I’m sure some probably do. MFA courses and workshops can be really valuable in helping a writer learn to research, produce, and polish his or her copy. But just telling me you have that degree isn’t going to help get an assignment; show me the strong ideas, critical thinking, thorough research, and the artful execution the degree helped you build.

Matthew Quick, a 2007 graduate of the Goddard MFA program, has a novel forthcoming, and has been on the editorial staffs of several literary journals.

Q: How has completing an MFA helped you in your writing career thus far?

Matthew: I don't think that my possessing an MFA degree—in and of itself—had much to do with landing any of my publications; in fact, I've never published anything significant that I worked on with a Goddard advisor and no one in the publishing industry has ever asked if I have earned an MFA degree.

Q: Did you make any valuable contacts?

Matthew: While one of my advisors was very generous regarding publishing advice, no one at Goddard offered up any references or contacts of any kind—but I'm not sure that's the MFA advisor's role anyway, nor should it be. It's a Master of Fine Arts, and not a Master of How-To-Get-Published degree, after all. The MFA was an enriching experience for me, as a writer and as an artist. MFA programs are good places to practice writing and to be a part of a writing community, whether you will ever publish or not, and while my MFA experience was far from practical—regarding publishing—it still molded me and I’m glad I did it. Can the 'art' end of writing ever be practical?

Patsy Sims is director of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College in Baltimore, the only program in the U.S. which concentrates only in nonfiction.

Q: How, if at all, does the nonfiction program benefit the writer who wishes to establish a freelance career?

Patsy: We are able to put together a large nonfiction faculty, and during the residency, the whole 2 weeks, 16 hours a day is all nonfiction that's a real advantage. We have an increasing number of established journalists as students and I think it's due to what's happening in newspapers – more literary journalism, long narrative series, more creative forms of journalism.

Q: What about contacts made during the program?

Patsy: We work at familiarizing writers with how the publishing world works – yes, there are opportunities to meet agents and editors from publishing houses; to talk about book proposals, queries, nuts and bolts advice, so the student can learn first hand about the publishing world and begin making contacts for later.

While I wouldn't choose a program because of what contacts it could give me, I do think networking in writing is very helpful and very important. Even if the contacts you make can't "hook you up" they can help you figure out how to make other contacts.

Alumni are also an opportunity to share experience, get advice and offer contacts.
There's nothing wrong with having contacts: a person w/contacts is ahead of a person who doesn't have contacts. But that would not be a primary reason for choosing a program. The faculty to me is the most import part in choosing a program.

Q: How is your program helpful to already-working writers?

Patsy: If you are coming in say, from newspapers, I think getting an MFA and learning to write in a more creative and in depth way could be a huge help. We have a woman in the program now, been at a top newspaper for 25 years and is in a really good position there. Yet, she says we've introduced her to literature and reading she would not have done otherwise and it has really broadened her writing. I was surprised to hear her say that because she's an accomplished writer already, but here, she learned about reading like a writer.

That's what an MFA program can do – reading is a terribly important way to learn to write well and it's an advantage to be exposed to a broader range of writing than you might find on your own, and to work with faculty to read more analytically. It's sort of like having a good editor looking over your shoulder – having a different mentor each semester.

When I first got here in 2001, students were all about memoir, but that's changed a great deal. Far more now are working on literary journalism projects.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey received her MFA from Bennington in 2004, writes for regional magazines and is the executive director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.

Q: Has your MFA degree been helpful in any way when securing freelance assignments?

Shonna: The are sort of two schools of thought on that idea. The first being that an MFA offers both space to fine-tune your craft and the contacts to help market work, and the second is that writers are there just to write. I think it's a mix of both. For freelance projects, it usually comes down to your contacts and relationships because an editor is more likely to assign to someone he/she knows can do the project. Did my MFA increase my contacts? Yes. But did I eventually have to knock on doors and do the work? Absolutely. I think an MFA is a badge of accomplishment, but writers need work experience to land the gigs.

The MFA program opened my eyes to the discipline involved with being a professional writer and also showed me that there is a lot of solid competition, too.

Q: A lot is made about contacts one makes during the program with fellow students and faculty, who may be helpful in future career endeavors. Any thoughts?

Shonna: This is a tricky one. Being surrounded by people in the writing life is important, but so is having an idea or quick pitch ready to market. When a professor or visiting industry professional asks what you are working on, be ready to describe your project in a quick and interesting way. I think MFA students make the mistake of thinking "I'm not ready" or "I'm not there yet." If you can establish yourself with a unique identity early on in an MFA program (the guy who is writing the memoir about China, the woman who researches bees, the haiku poet) and put yourself and your project in front of as many industry people as possible while you are there, that's only going to help. Of course, you need to have the talent to back it up, too.

Vince Passaro is a novelist, short story writer, critic and essayist, whose magazine work has been published in Esquire, GQ, the New York Times Magazine and Harper's. He has an MFA from Columbia and is also director of special projects for Yaddo, the writer's colony.
Q: How much has the MFA helped your freelance writing career?

Vince: It was through one of the faculty at my program that I met the magazine editor who gave me my start. So, in an academic way, the MFA had no influence; but in terms of professional contacts, for me it was central. That said, I don't think the aspiring magazine writer -- as opposed to the aspiring poet, dramatist, memoirist, or fiction writer -- is well advised pursuing an MFA. If one wants an academic program with the hopes of professional contacts, certain journalism grad programs are far more appropriate.

Q: When querying editors for work, do you mention the MFA? Do you think it helped you get taken more seriously?

Vince: Generally, once you're being published, the whole issue of your provenance doesn't matter anymore.

Q: What advice might you have for students currently enrolled in an MFA program who want to work as freelancers for mainstream media?

Vince: I don't think the MFA program does in fact support that particular goal. I just happened to be very lucky, that the director of my program was married to an editor at a good start-up magazine. The 'FA' of MFA stands for Fine Arts. If that's not what you're going for, then look elsewhere.

Q: Do you think there is, or that there is going to be, a backlash against the proliferation of MFA programs which are churning out more graduates every few months?

Vince: I think the publishing of serious fiction and poetry will eventually become so financially unrewarding that people who want to write it will eventually abandon expensive academic credentialing programs. But that's still a good many years down the road.

Q: In terms of your writing craft, how much of a boost was your MFA experience?

Vince: Ah, this is the most important question of all. I think, looking back, that I was pretty shrewd. I went to the MFA program a bit late -- I was 29. I'd been writing and studying writing on my own for almost ten years. I believed that I needed professional contacts, and whatever extra credibility was to be found in that program; I was not seeking help in craft, and I would say that only one of my four workshop teachers had much to offer on the issue of craft, though what he offered was immense. The two years or more of intense work under the scrutiny of their colleagues and in competition with them will do a lot for writers' craft, and this is the appeal of the MFA programs. But in the end, in our struggles with language and form, we're on our own.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Freelancing and the MFA

I'm thrilled to have a reported essay up today over at one of my favorite sites,, titled "Is an MFA a Boost for a Freelance Career?" I tell a bit of my own personal experience, and present tips and advice from magazine editors, an agent, successful freelancers who also happen to have MFA degrees, an MFA program director, and a novelist/MFA faculty member.

Because it's part of Mediabistro's membership-only AvantGuild section (which houses an incredible amount of insider info handy for writers, editors and others in the media or publishing worlds) you won't get the full text when you try
this link (unless you are an AG member). But it starts out like this:

"Two years ago, I wanted to restart a writing career dormant for eight years. My undergraduate degree was in journalism and I had worked as a freelance writer and public relations specialist but, hoping to stretch my writing muscle, I decided on an MFA in nonfiction. I knew an MFA program is more focused on craft than career and might not prepare me for any specific job, literary or otherwise. But, I still wanted one; I wanted to immerse myself for two years in nothing but writing. And how could learning to write better not help any writer's career?....."

Researching this article put me back in mind of all the reasons I love freelancing: I get obsessively interested in a particular subject, or something intangible in the zeitgeist grabs my attention, and I want to know more – up close. So I figure out an angle that might make sense to a certain slice of readers, pitch the article idea, get the go-ahead and BAM – now I have permission to contact, well, anyone.

"Hi, I'm preparing an article for X and I'd like to ask you a few questions about…" Pretty soon, I am having a conversation in person, over the phone or electronically, with an interesting person whose brain I am now officially welcome to pick.

Back when I was pregnant and then a new mother, whatever I was perplexed or worried about -- drug-free childbirth, postpartum depression, children's foot injuries, security at preschools, and all sorts of other topics – went straight into the query/interview/report bin. Although essay writing takes up a good bit of my time these days, I still like the fit of the reporter hat.

Space over at Mediabistro was limited, so later this week or next, I'll put up an extra-long post here with more of the Q&As I conducted with the experts (which didn't make it into the final piece).