Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The MFA in...Fantasy?

Gracious readers, it is with great pleasure that I present my guest blogger today: Alz from A Nudge In the Right Direction, who discusses her MFA...for which she wrote a fantasy thesis!

Hello, hello! This is Alz, and this is my first time guest blogging and I'm so excited I could dance if I weren't both criminally lazy and so uncoordinated that it's a matter of life and death simply to rise from my computer chair to go to the bathroom.

Today I'm going to talk a bit about what it's like being in an MFA program for Creative Writing—and more specifically, what it's like going into such a program as primarily a fantasy writer.

I wanted to go into the program not just because I thought it would be totally awesome to get a degree in something I love doing, but also because I wanted to hone my craft, get (and learn to give) some serious critique, and be pushed into writing outside of my comfort zone.

Now, these are all things you can accomplish outside of an actual degree-giving program. Thanks to the internet, there are writing circles, forums, critique groups, and various other excellent resources for writers. But discussing things face-to-face in a structured environment was a far more challenging, stimulating, and rewarding experience than anything I've ever gone through anywhere else.

A diversity of graduate classmates and professors all dedicated to the writing craft makes for a very different environment than an undergraduate course or online writing circle. For one thing, they're all there because they want to be there and for the same reasons as you (camaraderie!); for another, since it's a program that they're paying a metric boatload-and-a-half of money for, of course they're going to show up, provide feedback, and contribute to discussion (get your money's worth!). Due to the small class size and the closeness with which we worked, we were as much friends as peers. To watch the evolution of each others' work and trace the growth of your own over the course of two years is amazingly gratifying. Just thinking back on it makes me feel all warm and caffeinated and chocolaty and peppery inside.

Getting and giving serious critique is what helped me grow the most. Between critique from my classmates (whose varied perspectives and questions were invaluable) and my professors (who never failed to praise as much as push for growth, and never pulled punches), I was able to recognize where my weaknesses lay in terms of style and prose, to build on my strengths, and experiment in an encouraging environment. You might need to grow a thicker skin or learn to roll with those peer-and-professorial punches since sometimes critique can be brutally honest, but growing pains are growing pains.

Giving critique was just as important, because in pinpointing what makes a piece work and what doesn't, I became aware of those same issues in my own writing. I'd tell a classmate, "This description is too long and slows down the pace of the story," and then realize, "Oh crap, I did that myself right here, and here, and here too."

This is the major benefit of a dedicated in-person weekly workshop: You become familiar with each other as people as well as authors, and to understand each others' styles and goals. It's all very well for a person to tell you your story is good or bad; it's another thing entirely for someone to tell you specifically how and why, and suggest ways to make it even better or fix it.

Now on to the fantasy part! Alas, hear ye all my lament: Fantasy does tend to be looked down upon as a genre, along with (but perhaps not quite so poorly as) science fiction. Point of fact, I was pretty much the only self-proclaimed fantasy writer in the program, though some of my classmates wrote in surrealist, horror, and experimental genres. Lest I sound like I'm making myself out to be the lone toucan in a flock of sparrows, this was by no means the case—I was an odd fish in a pond full of fantastic and equally odd fish, for we spanned a rainbow of genres and delicious flavors. Have I mixed enough metaphors into that sentence?

I was at first filled with trepidation at introducing my fantasy-based writing to my peers and professors, whose tastes were as far-ranging and different from each other as buffalos are from immortal jellyfish. Turns out my fears were unfounded—I was surrounded by writers who treated my writing as writing. For some, it was their first foray into fantasy while for others it was not their genre of choice, but just because it's not something you'd pick up in a bookstore of your own volition doesn’t mean you can't enjoy it. After all, I read pretty much exclusively fantasy and science fiction on my own, but I thoroughly enjoyed my classmates' writing.

A bemusing and interesting thing is that the people reading my fiction were not my presupposed target (fantasy-reading) audience. Having a perspective exterior to that POV was an eye-opener as my classmates asked me questions about things I hadn't really thought about, such as if the number of hours in a day were different in this fantasy world, and why the trees were the same species as our own trees, and was this taking place in our world but in the past or on a different world or was it an alternate world and if it was alternate then how alternate was it?

Hmm. What things I took for granted and that I thoughtlessly expected my audience to take for granted! Their input expanded my worldview (which I had never before considered narrow) and made me aware of my own blindspots

Mind you, it wasn't all ice cream and sprinkles—there was blood, sweat and tears, and pain, oh gods the pain, the stress, the agony of keeping deadlines and cranking out embarrassingly sub-par work and wanting to die and dying repeatedly only to claw your way back to life because, dammit, you're going to finish that story and revise that bastard and hand it in and succeed.

Ultimately, my sentiments boil down to these: You get out of a program what you put into it. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The Force will be with you. The cake is not a lie. Rock on, and keep writing.


  1. awesome post!I've often thought about one day getting my MFA in CW, just for kicks...still in the far, far future though.

    I'm taking a fiction writing workshop at a local university right now, and a good percent of the class is writing fantasy. It's been really interesting to hear the perspectives of those in the class, like you said, who aren't tried-and-true fantasy readers. And when it was my turn with my urban fantasy--yeah, they nailed me over and over. Some very accurate, some not so much (in my opinion), but still extremely insightful!

  2. I am so glad you had a positive MFA experience, especially since you (gasp!) write genre. That's not always the case, but it sounds like your professors and peers were wonderful to work with!

  3. I would love to get an MFA. I thought of getting one in poetry, but I don't have time. I'm so glad that the fantasy focus wasn't looked down upon.

  4. Awesome post! I'm so glad Sophia had you guest blogging. Those questions your classmates asked are hilarious...mostly because they are things I also hadn't considered :)

  5. It wasn't all ice cream and sprinkles - HA - it sounds like it wasn't. The more we connect with other writers, the better writers we become. Great post!

  6. Belated YAY GUEST POST comment! :D Thank you, Sophia! (And great title, btw.)

    Summer - The unexpected questions and critique were always extremely helpful because they made me realize the limitations I'd set on myself without even knowing I'd set any.

    Bluestocking - I have to admit I was kind of worried when I started the program and there were a couple of rough patches with the fantasy, but those were professor-related rather than peer-related and for the most part with the profs the kinks got ironed out pretty quickly. :)

    Lydia - We were lucky enough in our program to share classes with the poetry MFA students, and the differences and similarities in perspective and approach were always intriguing. RE: Fantasy not being looked down upon: I did apply to several MFA programs and was up-front about writing fantasy, and I got rejected from all but the oddball one at an art school. I think I was much, much happier there than I would've been at the others, which reeked of expectations of Literary Literature.

    Juliana - The most disorienting question was that one about whether or not the day had 24 hours in this fantasy world since I had never, ever considered it might be otherwise. But the girl asking said that it seemed like it had been morning for a long time in the story (a lot of stuff had happened) and that was why she thought maybe the day might be longer.

    Theresa - I'd say it was ice cream and sprinkles with a few rocks hidden inside that cracked my teeth. ;) Delicious overall, but not without its knocks.


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