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In Which I Contemplate The Post-MFA Writing Life And The Difficulties Of Getting Stuck

When I was at VCFA, Tom Green gave a speech at one of the commencements that addressed the problem of MFA students graduating and then not writing again, sometimes for years. He even admitted (bravely!) that this had happened to him after he graduated. I remember, at the time, dismissing the whole thing, thinking, “Come on, that’ll never happen to me. I’m too determined. I’ve got so many ideas. I’m a real writer!” LOL, in other words, I was totally asking for it.

I graduated this summer and it was scary and wonderful and bittersweet. And then I got home and I didn’t feel like writing. But more than that, I suddenly hated writing. The whole process felt like trying to cram my head through the eye of a needle. So I stopped for a month. But I was terrified I would never start again so I forced myself back to work. And writing felt like work. Boring, miserable, “Why am I doing this to myself?” work. And why was I doing this to myself? Why not just quit and join the circus or find myself an actual pirate ship or *gasp* get a normal job like a sensible person? That would be so much easier than writing.

But then I’d come up with a wonderful idea for my WIP and be filled with enough elation to continue writing for a few days, even weeks sometimes. I’d think, “Yes! I’ve figured everything out now. It’ll be fine.” Unfortunately, the doors of apathy would inevitably slam closed again and writing would slip back into feeling like work. So I’d stop writing and start coming up with inane plans. “I need to fill the well,” I would say to myself. So I’d read stacks of books. Or “Short stories, Ray Bradbury says we should all start with short stories, not novels.” So I’d try writing short stories, instead. On and on endlessly, stopping, starting, standing on my head…

And then in December my existential crisis seemed to settle down. I thought about how if I stopped working on this novel and started something else I would probably never finish anything. I began having morbid and dramatic dialogues with myself, such as: “Shawna, if you suddenly get cancer what are you going to regret not having done before you died?” And the answer was always: “Not having finished this %$@%** novel!” I sat down and tried to make reasonable goals for myself and I wrote and I wrote and writing wasn’t hateful. I kept waiting for the crisis to hit again, but it didn’t. It slunk away. And I’m still writing now, albeit very slowly. I haven’t run off to join the nearest circus or commandeer any pirate ships or become a librarian (although it’s very tempting). I’m not writing in a constant state of ecstasy, but that’s to be expected, and writing no longer feels like trying to fit my head through an infinitesimally small space.

What happened? I’m not entirely sure. I suppose maybe I just needed a break or needed to find my way out of the labyrinth. And, of course, I might wake up tomorrow and change my mind about everything all over again. But I do have a few theories as to why these past few months have been such a struggle and I want to take a moment to explore each of them.

I moved to a new state. This is probably the most obvious obstacle. Graduation is always a time of liminality, but add to that moving to a new place and having to start so much of life from scratch is enough to make anyone want to curl up into a tiny mewling ball of despair. When I actually think about everything I’ve done in the past six months, I’m amazed I managed to write anything at all. That said, I honestly think even if I hadn’t moved to a new place after graduation I still would’ve struggled with writing.

Lack of a schedule and deadlines. Okay, so this is the second most obvious issue. I actually wasn’t too worried about having to create my own schedule/deadlines because I’ve always been pretty disciplined. But I suspect there’s always going to be a period of adjustment and one thing I definitely realized is that the MFA level of discipline is not necessarily sustainable. It is a lot of work, and, once again, with moving and job hunting and dealing with so much upheaval it is practically impossible to come up with a schedule and stick to it. I’m still working on figuring that out.

I got burnt out. Did I mention that getting an MFA is a lot of work? Two years of doing little else but writing and reading will burn anyone out. And while I’m grateful that I got to do this program without having to juggle a full-time job, the unfortunate result was that I spent the last two years living like a hermit. Seriously, days would go by without me even leaving the house once. So when I graduated and there were no longer packet deadlines and schedules to follow I wanted nothing more than to let down my hair, kick off my shoes, run wild through the streets and never be disciplined again.

Boredom. I have now been working on this same novel for two years and I have yet to even make it through the middle of a draft. I am so sick of this story! And, oh, the shiny, much more exciting brand new ideas that plague me! This has been really hard for me, trying to reignite my passion for a project that feels interminable while simultaneously resisting the siren-call of fresh story ideas. But reminding myself of all the exciting bits helps, as has remembering that part of the reason this book has taken so long to finish is because I was working on it in school, which meant going through many revisions instead of writing straight through a draft. Right now I’m clinging to the hope that writing through a full draft will be much faster for me in the future. Also, bribery is motivating.

The sudden, dramatic lack of a safety net. There is something odd about getting nearly constant feedback on your writing for two years only to suddenly graduate and be on your own. Don’t get me wrong, I think being on our own as writers is absolutely essential. We have to learn to trust ourselves, not rely entirely on other people, but it is disorienting. Thankfully, graduation does not mean floating off into the ether. I do have a wonderful community of writers now to share feedback with…if I ever manage to finish this novel…

Performance anxiety and the fear of failure.* Hands down, this has been the obstacle that’s startled and dismayed me the most because I never expected it. But first, some explanation. I did a lot of theatre in high school and the thing about acting (and singing!) that always terrified me the most was auditioning. In my mind nothing was scarier than that. Then, while practicing for an audition, my voice teacher at the time revealed to me that her greatest fear was actually getting the role because then you had to worry about going through with the whole thing and not letting everyone down. This was news to me. I understood the terror of auditioning. To me failure was not getting the role. But as soon as she introduced this newer and more terrifying idea I started to feel that sense of performance anxiety. What if I got the role and then messed it up? What if I really wasn’t good enough and everyone regretted casting me?

I never expected to feel this way about writing, but it has been a struggle. Having an MFA degree is like having an enormously high standard to live up to. I feel I should know more, be a better writer, and there is a fear of letting everyone down. What if my advisors hate all the changes I’ve made to my book? What if my beloved Secret Gardeners hate it? The doubts and insecurities can take over my mind. But at the end of the day, I’ve had to learn to just breathe and trust the process and realize I cannot possibly satisfy everyone, even the people I love and admire most. And perhaps most importantly I’ve tried to remind myself of a line from a beautiful drawing of a corvid by Charles van Sandwyk that hangs over my desk: “A word, lovingly written, lives for ever.” If I cannot love what I write then I might as well quit now and do something else, and while I do think it’s important to think about your audience, I really do believe it’s most important to write for oneself, otherwise why go through all that struggle and heartache?

Anyway, this has been my experience of post-MFA life so far. I’m sure it’s been different for all of us. I just wanted to share my own perspective in case anyone else has had similar experiences and also so that you know that getting stuck isn’t permanent or a symptom of some terrible failing. In the end, you might decide you would much rather be a pirate than a person who writes about pirates, but if you find yourself in any of the above states please know it will get better. You will learn things about yourself and possibly forget them again. But if you put one foot in front of the other eventually you will get where you’re going. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself…

* I’m actually glad I went through this particular anxiety because I suspect this is what newly published authors feel in spades. And if I ever do publish a novel at least I’ll know to expect that and recognize it for what it is, which is just fear, plain and simple.

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In Which I Return (But Hopefully Not From The Dead)

Whew! I can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since I last posted here. 2012 was a crazy year. I gave a lecture on characterization. I wrote a 75 page creative thesis. I went to Germany for a month. I graduated from my MFA program and I moved to a new city. I think I’m just now starting to get my feet back under me again.

Anyway, I have lots of things I want to talk about like post-MFA life, and what’s going on with my work in progress a.k.a. my thesis, and my dad’s new book that came out in December. So I’m going to try to post something at least once a week. I can do that, right?

Here’s to more regular posting!

Writing

Blog Hiatus!

So you may have noticed that I have failed in my goal of posting once a week. But I have an excuse! I have been working very hard! I have 30,000 words of my novel now and I’ve been writing a little poetry, too. Hurray! And it is the middle of the semester so life is hectic. That said, I think I’m going to take a break from this blog until after I graduate because there is just too much to do and I have to prioritize!!! I apologize. And I will see you on the other side of my MFA degree 😉

Darrell Kastin, Writing

Writing Away And A Book Cover

This is just to say that I’ve been working away on my novel and my lecture and cooking a ton of food from scratch so I don’t have as much time right now to blog about anything particularly interesting. My advisor really loves the new third person I’m playing with, which I’m very pleased about, and she wants me to keep moving forward in the story for now, so that’s what I’m doing. We need to have 75 pages of our creative thesis to graduate and right now I have about 95 pages (I am trying to get through the whole draft for my own sinister purposes). My goal is to get to 30,000 words by the end of the third packet. We’ll see how that goes. It feels really good to move forward at this point because it gives me a glimpse of the bigger picture of the story, the structure, as it were, instead of only writing and revising in smaller chunks. I’m trying to just speed through right now to get the words down (because it is so tempting to stop and edit every single word) and then I’ll go back and to get those same words to suck less, lol.

I really need to spend some time on my lecture, too. I’m toying with the idea of using powerpoint and it’s been ages since I’ve even looked at powerpoint, so I think some brushing up is in order. I have a rough draft/outline of my lecture written out, but I’d really like to get a more final version done. I’m going to be using a lot of exercise examples, too, so I’ve got to write those out and then hope my lecture doesn’t end up being two hours long 😉

Anyway, that’s all for now. But before I go I just wanted to show you all the official cover for my dad’s new short story collection coming out through Tagus Press this fall. Doesn’t it look lovely?

Darrell Kastin

My Dad Has A New Book Coming Out!!!!

Whew! Packet 2 is in and I’m taking a much needed break to do things like clean off my desk, lol 🙂 But I have an exciting announcement to make. My dad’s new short story collection “The Conjurer and Other Tales” is coming out this fall from Tagus Press. If you enjoyed his first novel, “The Undiscovered Island“, are interested in Portugal and the Azores, or just love magic realism I think you’ll really like this collection.

Here’s the official description:

The Azores––an archipelago of magic and beauty in the Mid-Atlantic––is the unique setting and inspiration for this collection.

The people who inhabit these stories are etched from the fertile, volcanic soil, the sea, and the atmosphere surrounding the nine islands; like the nine Muses each island has its own special attributes. Whether love, power, or meaning is their quest, these characters find themselves subject to the whims of Fate and Fortune. Here, the prosaic present is suddenly confronted by opposing forces and realities. While these stories take place in the microcosm of the Azores, they represent a much larger, wider sphere, reflecting the foibles and idiosyncrasies of humanity the world over.

Hopefully I’ll have more details on the release date soon 🙂

Writing

Experiments in Point of View

Okay, so I know I’ve been very bad and skipped another week of posting, but I’ve been swamped with rewriting everything (again) after getting some awesome feedback from my advisor (and a few other people). I haven’t even had a chance to work on my lecture yet and my next packet is due a week from today so there has been a lot of panicking. But I didn’t really think I could get away with skipping two weeks in a row, so here I am!

I’m trying an experiment this time around in my rewrites. I’m writing everything in third person instead of first. Why? Because I was curious to see if it might help me get a better grasp of my characters, especially my protagonist. I know that sounds a little strange. It seems like the usual advice is to use first person as a way to get more deeply inside the head of one’s protagonist, but the difficulty there, I think, is that it can be hard to capture a character’s voice when you’re not really sure who that character is. And one thing I like about third person is that it lets me see that character from the outside as well as the inside. Lately I’ve been feeling so locked inside my protagonist’s head that I’m stumbling my way through the story like a blind person. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Anyway, I thought, why not? Let’s try it in third and see what happens and honestly the result has really startled me.

I’d forgotten how much I love third person. I won’t even go into how much I love omniscient because I’m trying to steer clear of that POV for this story. I haven’t yet figured out how to write an omniscient voice that really works and I don’t want to make this harder than it already is. But third person in general is a POV that I feel comfortable in. It’s familiar and welcoming, like an old friend. I grew up reading mostly varying degrees of third person because I read so much middle grade fantasy as a kid and it’s been odd to see how much first person has infiltrated the current YA market. Not that there’s anything wrong with first person, but, my god, it is everywhere. It is inescapable! And sometimes I really do want to escape from it, especially when all those first person teen voices start to blend into one voice.

Of course, I’m not entirely sure what I have now works. I’m not sure the story’s actually better in third than it was in first. But it feels so much more like a story! I don’t know how to explain that. It feels like a real world with people and places I as the narrator can describe, instead of constantly being tangled up in the inner workings of my protagonist’s mind, especially when I’m not even sure half the time of who my protagonist really is. Maybe third person is a way for me to tell myself the story so that I can then translate it for other people 🙂

The irony of all this is that the story didn’t start in first person originally. This whole novel started as a messy short story/sketch of a novel that was written in a pretty distant third person. I wrote it a few years ago and realized it really had to be a novel, that it was way too complicated for a short story. And when I decided to make that transition in my second semester at VCFA (I can’t believe I’ve been working on this for a year!) I thought it would be a good opportunity to practice first person. After all, I never wrote in first person and I came to VCFA to learn and try new things, and so many YA books were written in first, and my protagonist was a writer so I thought I could make the voice lyrical and poetic without sounding forced, and anyway I was having such a difficult time writing third in the novel I worked on first semester. So I tried it and it was fun and I do think I learned a lot. I think the third person I’m writing now is so much more solid than what I was writing first semester. I’m much more able to get into my protagonist’s mind with all that first person under my belt, but maybe this story just wasn’t meant to stay in that POV.

It reminds me of something Tim Wynne-Jones said to me when I was working on my critical thesis last semester. I was writing about intrusive narrators and I kept talking about narrators as if the authors had chosen them out of a box. Like, hey, I’m writing a silly MG novel about a governess. I’ll just pick a voice that reflects the theme I’m writing about and be done with it. But Tim pointed out that a narrator is the voice of a story and that implies something heard by the author. Many of us when we start writing hear that voice and write accordingly. It isn’t necessarily a cerebral, intellectual thing. It’s instinctual. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an interview with an author writing in first person who says they clearly heard the character’s voice in their head begging them to write their story. I never had that with this project. The voice I heard when I was first writing that short story was the traditional once upon a time, fairy tale voice. I’ve only heard the voice of a story in first person a few times. So maybe there’s something to that. Maybe I ought to just stick with my gut instincts. Now I just have to wait and see what my advisor thinks 🙂

Writing

My VCFA Lecture: Freewriting and Characterization

So the graduating class at VCFA have to give a lecture in their final residency. Sometimes people use their critical thesis as a basis for their lecture, but I’m choosing to do something completely different. I’m going to be doing a lecture on characterization, more specifically, on using freewriting to get to know one’s characters.

What do I mean by freewriting? Lots of different things. You might interview your characters, for example, or write about your protagonist from the perspective of a secondary character. You might describe the contents of their wardrobe, their refrigerator, or their trash. If you have a character who writes songs or poems, why not try writing a few examples of something they’ve written? There are so many possibilities here, but the point is always to learn more about your characters.

I have a lot of trouble figuring my characters out in general (especially my protagonists), which is why I picked this topic. And while I don’t think everyone needs to chain themselves to their desks right now and do all these exercises or their story/novel will fail miserably, I do think they can be useful tools when you’re getting started or feeling stuck. I think the better we know our characters the less floundering we are likely to do and god knows I have done a lot of floundering.

Anyway, if anyone reading this has any suggestions for freewriting exercises I would greatly appreciate all the help I can get. What do you do to get to know your characters?

Writing

Killing Your Darlings Part 2

If you write at all, sooner or later you’ll come across the concept of “killing your darlings.” It’s inevitable that as an artist you will also eventually create something that you love dearly but that doesn’t work in the grand scheme of your story or is at best self indulgent. And then you will have to kill it. Dead. But like most things it’s a hell of a lot easier to talk about than it is to do.

Before I started writing seriously—that is, before I started writing on a regular basis instead of, say, once a year—I used to think that revision meant moving words around on the page. I blame poetry for this. When you are obsessed with language you cannot help but get lost in the words of a story and forget about everything else. Or at least, that’s been my experience. I could easily spend weeks doing nothing but fixate on the words of a story, trying to get the sound and the rhythm just right. You know that Hemingway quote, the one where he talks about rewriting the end of a book 39 times just to get the words right? That is me. I will do things like that until I can’t stand the sight of it anymore.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. But it does pose a huge problem for me at a certain stage of the writing process because, let’s face it, if that ending doesn’t make sense/doesn’t fit with the rest of the story or what have you, why waste all that time and energy on fixing the words when there is obviously a greater problem there? It doesn’t matter how pretty the words are. If the structure is falling apart sooner or later the story will crumble. And the danger of fixating solely on language is that it can blind you to the larger, overarching problems. After all, it’s much easier to change the words than it is to rework the story itself. (Suddenly, I find myself wondering if some writers are better at focusing on big picture stuff than others).

So that is what has been happening to me in the past few weeks. I was busy working on backstory. I was all set to write a bunch of new backstory scenes. I’d done all this work sketching out characters and setting. And then I realized it just didn’t make sense. The backstory was too complicated. It was like I had two character/plot arcs instead of one (Tim, if you’re reading this you were absolutely right) and I couldn’t think of any logical reason why it should be that way other than the fact that I wanted it to be that way. Why, you ask? Because there were all these cool magical scenes I wanted to have in there that I would probably have to cut because they just wouldn’t work if I picked one of those arcs and stuck with it. In other words, I really really really didn’t want to have to kill any of my darlings.

It’s a difficult thing to do, cutting scenes or characters you love, and I think because I often start a story with a concept and a bunch of cool images in mind, instead of a character, it’s much harder for me to do. Those images might be the reason I started the story. Or maybe they’re just really cool, magical scenes that I hate to let go of. But when you keep things just because you like them even though they don’t fit into the story or make sense you really do yourself a disservice and you’re probably giving yourself more work in the long run.

Anyway, in terms of my own work I’ve merged the two arcs (before, I had an arc when my protagonist was a child and one when she’s a teenager. Now everything takes place when she’s a teen.), I moved a bunch of the backstory up in time so those events are more recent, and scrapped most of what I’d written, though it’s still floating around in my head. I think it works better now. It still needs a lot of tweaking, but it feels more like a story than a bunch of disconnected events. And I’m desperately trying to focus more on the overall structure and keep from obsessing about those damn words! But even now I do ocasionally hear that siren call: maybe I can fit this scene in here, if I change it just a little, maybe I won’t have to kill it, please please please…

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Killing Your Darlings Part 1

Okay, okay! So I was supposed to post something once a week. But I had this crazy idea to scrap most of what I had written of my novel and start over again so I’m currently in panic-and-chain-myself-to-the-computer mode. Therefore a real post will have to wait. I will try to actually write something useful when I’m done killing my darlings. I will even try to give you all the gory details so you can gasp in horror with me or something. And I will, of course, try to keep myself from wallowing in despair.

Hasta luego,

Your humble blogger.

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The Trouble with Backstory

I spent most of last semester alternating every other chapter of my novel between the past (backstory) and the present (the actual story, I guess) and in the process lost any semblance of logic. Characters would do things for no particular reason I could think of other than that I didn’t know what else to have them do. Or they would become my plot bitches and do really stupid, nonsensical things just to further the plot I wanted the novel to have. I have a problem with that in particular. So I finally decided to put my foot down and rearrange everything in chronological order.

There’s a lot of stuff that happens to my protagonist in the past that affects the present day story and it’s been phenomenally helpful to explore that past, but I think—for me, at least—writing the draft chronologically is the way to go. Otherwise it’s too easy to get lost in chains of events or actions that don’t make sense. What amuses me is that I had to do the same thing with the last novel I was working on. I kept trying to write from whenever the “actual” story was supposed to start and just couldn’t figure out what I was doing, so I ended up writing the protagonists’ stories from their birth to the present day. So maybe this is just my writing process. Maybe I just need to write out my characters’ pasts before I can get anywhere. It does make me wonder about non-linear novels in general, though. Do most people write them chronologically and then make them non-linear in revision? Or do other writers have a greater capacity for organizing things in their heads than I do? I don’t know.

The thing I worry about is (once I have the whole draft written out) trying to figure out how to work that backstory into the rest of the story. Do I tell the whole story in chronological order? But then how would it fit into the genre of YA? Are there any YA books that start with the protagonist as a young child and then work their way up through adolescence? If I don’t keep it in chronological order, then do I go back to alternating every other chapter between the past and the present? Do I alternate in chronological order or mix up the flashbacks so that they come up at relevant times? One of my classmates in my workshop this residency suggested I could use a particular image to tie chapters together. So for example, a key might show up in the flashback and then reappear in the present day scene. I love that idea and I think I’ll definitely have to try it once I have the whole draft written and can reorganize it. But for now I’m trying not to stress out and just focus on writing the draft in whatever way I need to write it. Still, I think it’s interesting to ponder these questions…and perhaps interesting to know that a novel can be written in one way, but ultimately structured in a completely different way.