Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Back to School: MFA Week, Day Six

Welcome to Day Six of our special Back to School: MFA Week! Six SCBWI-MI members (representing three different MFA programs) answer a question a day for seven days. It's everything you ever wanted to know about getting your MFA.

Just joining us? Go here to read the first post in our MFA series. Day TwoDay ThreeDay Four. Day Five.

Team MFA: Jennifer (Jay) Whistler, Diane Telgen, Anita Pazner, Erin Brown Conroy, Rebecca Grabill, and Katie Van Ark.

What is the most important thing you learned?

Jay: I learned that if you call yourself a writer, then you have to write everyday. But you also have to read. A ton. Everything you can get your hands on. Ask yourself why something works. Is it because the author uses the three-act structure perfectly? Does the picture book master the art of the page turn? Learn from what these authors do well. But also ask yourself why something doesn’t work. Has the writer failed to make the stakes high enough, or the concrete desires obvious enough? Real writers don’t just read it and forget it. They deconstruct and use what they learn to reverse engineer their own stories.

Erin: I agree with Jay. I never read as I do now (and I considered myself to be a reader, before the MFA). I’m constantly evaluating others’ works, listening to books on audio to hear the rhythms and tones that make an author successful, and analyzing how a character is introduced, to glean more skills. The MFA gave so many “whys” that I can now see in others’ works, and it all informs my work. Also, I have to say, I learned the value of outlining the beats of your work before writing -- which not only saves time but also makes sure you’re including the emotional moments that readers crave. Having a frame to write within only strengthened my scenes, the conflict within each scene, and the pacing of the work.

Rebecca: I totally agree with Jay and Erin. Read, read, read some more. I also learned the vastness of what I *don’t* know, which in one way is humbling, in another invigorating. I’ll never stop being curious. There will always, and I mean ALWAYS be new things to discover.

Diane: Learning to read books with a critical eye is crucial, I agree, but more important for me was to really develop that eye when looking at my own work. It can be so difficult to spread the guts of your story all over the table and assess what it needs without feeling inadequate. Now I have tools to consider things like voice, stakes, structure, language, metaphor, point of view, etc., and diagnose not only what needs improvement but how to fix it. So perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that revision isn’t a sign of failure, but an opportunity to make your story the best it can be.

Anita: I learned all the things that my esteemed colleagues mentioned, but I also learned a great deal about myself. I learned that I can do this. That I am a writer and a pretty good one, at that. But most of all, I learned that even when things are ridiculously hard and I want to give up, I can keep going one word at a time. And then, I can go back and revise and edit until my words are no longer a pile of gibberish, but a group of well thought out sentences that shine and stir emotion.

Writing a book is not a sprint, but a marathon that needs the kind of stamina that only a program like VCFA could help me develop. In essence, it gave me permission to write badly and just get words on the page. That was the toughest part for me. I had to metaphorically bind and gag my inner editor and toss him in the closet and keep him there until a first draft was complete. Come to think of it, I better go check on him. He’s been there far too long.

Go Team MFA! Only one day left in our series. Please join us tomorrow for the grand finale, Back to School: MFA Week, Day Seven. The big question: "Would you do it again?"

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