Brenda Cooper

End of First Semester: Being a Mid-Career MFA Student

In my day job (IT Management), it’s normal to go back to school mid-career to get new skills and hop up a rung. Apparently the creative writing career is different; the goal of the MFA is to get published, and after you are published, you don’t really need one. But I’ve never been conventional. I am, however, quite goal-driven. My bucket list contained a Master’s degree. I’m five to ten years from retiring from my IT career, so an MBA or an MPA seemed silly. So here I am, getting my MFA even though I’m pretty well-published these days. There are good reasons – I still have skills to learn as a writer (being published does not mean you know everything), I’m toying with the idea of teaching (and being a good writer does not make you a good teacher) and I needed something different (the life of a mid-career mid-list novelist is an exercise in hanging on by the fingernails and investing time and money you don’t have to keep clinging to the ledge while kicking upward as hard as you can).

So here I am.

For those not following earlier FaceBook or other posts, I’m at the StoneCoast program in Southern Maine. That’s me – make it hard if you can. I picked an MFA program as far away as possible without leaving the continental US. Guess who has never been in below-zero weather? Yep. Four days. I’m counting gloves. But given that I write speculative fiction, Stonecoast is one of two places to be if you need something low residency so you can keep working.
The program looks like this: Go to Maine for ten days and do a lot, go back home for a semester and do a lot. Repeat for a total of four times. Go back to Maine and graduate. I’m at the end of the first semester.

So far, so good.

The residency was great. I already wrote about that (see FaceBook). The semester was too. You’ll notice from the paragraph up above that I picked Stonecoast because they have a popular fiction program, and I write science fiction and fantasy. Those, by the way, are actually excluded by name from many MFA programs. Which is kind of like saying you can come to our school but only if you don’t like cherries. I mean, really? That aside, StoneCoast has a great popular fiction program, but I enrolled in the fiction program and then for my first semester I studied poetry.

There are reasons. I enrolled in the fiction program because I like literary SF (Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson, Ursula K. LeGuin) and I got it into my head that the popular fiction program would be about things I already know while my writing could use a literary brush up. Really – snooty reviewers call my line-by-line writing bad names from time to time. They’re actually bullies. I shouldn’t care, but I do. While signing up for fiction might have been wrong-headed thinking, I learned a lot from my first residency workshop teacher, Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Besides, I have all the access I need to published SF and fantasy writers – they are my friends. It still makes sense to be in a program where they don’t hate what I do.

So what’s up with the poetry? Well, that was a spontaneous decision. I was sitting quietly in a chair listening to Martín Espada read. He is a glorious reader. I did start my literary career with poetry, but for the last two decades I’ve been writing space opera. When Martín read, I was transported. I was happy. Due to one of the usual bad-things-that-happen-to-novelists (my editor left the house and everything slowed down) I didn’t have any pressing deadlines that weren’t basically self-created. I had just delivered the last novel manuscript I had under contract. So I interpreted this as the universe making a poetry sized hole in my life and I leapt into the hole.

So what was the semester like?

I had fun. I read a craft book on poetry written by Frances Mayes, who wrote Under the Tuscan Sun (which has over 250,000 likes on Goodreads. Yipes!). I read poetry by Walt Whitman. Who knew I would love Walt Whitman? I read poetry by Dorianne Laux (I did know I loved her work…I fell in love with The Orgasms of Organisms years ago) and more, of course. It’s a Master’s program. There was a lot of work. I wrote fifty or so poems. I read hundreds of poems. I listened to talks.  I got to work with Eléna Rivera who was fabulous as a teacher/mentor for the semester, and who is a damned fine poet as well. All good.

So the experience has been awesome so far. But let’s do a round of pros and cons below, since that might be helpful to anyone else considering this path.

Pro’s so far:

I love the people. All of the instructors are great, and since it’s a program on the East Coast there are a lot of speculative fiction writers I don’t know well teaching there (although I’d met most of them). The fiction writers and poets are new, but they would have been anywhere I went. Still, it’s fun to be in a group of writers I don’t usually see.

The other students are great. I’m not the oldest one. I was a little afraid of that. The young ones are a little precious and adorable (I mean that in a good way — I realize it could be taken badly). One graduating student didn’t consider Ursula Le Guin a speculative fiction writer. I managed not to fall off of my chair. Barely. But the people are all great. Some are pretty damned fine writers already. One of the graduating (now graduated) students has this amazing book-movie thing going about a pet snail. I’m not kidding.

I am learning.

I’m having fun. Serious fun.

Note that a lot of the things I like are probably about StoneCoast itself – when I was doing my research I noted many programs where I had out-published EVERY teacher (not true here, not even close) and one (unaccredited) where the magical thing you had to do to graduate was write 20,000 words. I mean really? I write 50,000 words every November and 20,000 most months. I did nanowrimo this year even while doing Stonecoast. What would I do after the first month in a program with such a low bar that I could write it in one long coffee-filled weekend on the beach? So Stonecoast seems to be a good blend of actual rigor and good teachers – it’s a good place for me. The con’s might be more universal.

Con’s so far:

It costs a lot.

  • The worst cost is time. Yes, I’m getting value for the time. But I’m losing stories and probably a novel or two in trade. I can’t tell yet if the trade-off is going to be worth it. I do have poems under submission. They pay about 1% as much as a story, though.
  • It also costs a lot in money. I saved up, so I’ve gotten roughly the first half of the tuition out of saved writing income (while paying my travel from my own pocket). The second half needs to materialize, but I have a few anthology invites, a Year’s Best story, a Kickstarter, and some reprints all under contract or almost under contract So I think it will be okay. But it will be a close thing and I may need to drop the very last semester on a credit card. We’ll see. I am NOT touching student debt. That’s nasty stuff. Remember – mid-list writers don’t make much. Without the day job, I would earn below the poverty line.  At least I like my day job.

Most of the stuff I’ve read has been truly interesting. Some of it has been amazing (“Dart” by Alice Oswald, any poem by Jorie Graham or Dorianne Laux). Some of it has been what I’m going to call “Academic shorthand.” It assumes you’ve read every classic book in the world, uses code for major discussion and topics, and is totally – totally – unintelligible to the average person who hasn’t been at a University much for thirty years. Those hours are never coming back. Now, I get it. Shorthand is necessary. I’m in tech, and I might say, “I got a new IOT thing that serves as the new house base and uses blahdeblah encryption.” We all have our own languages and they serve a purpose. To understand some of these essays I had to go read essays about the essays and watch YouTube videos of the authors and leave offerings of banana peels outside the windows for the Gods of Academia. And not for the kinds of things I read about for fun like “How do we all thrive and defeat climate change at the same time?” This is for stuff like “Why don’t you start every line at the left?” Head-desk. Head-desk. Head-desk.

There is nothing about this program that helps a mid-lister with the business of writing. The business of writing stuff is all super-elementary and aimed at the unpublished. I expected that. I suppose it would be hard to entice a starry-eyed young writer with their first published story to show up for “Where to sell book three of your series after your first publisher abandoned you” or “What do you do with the eighteen boxes of hardbacks you stupidly bought as remainders?” as residency seminar titles.  At least I have other resources for that stuff.

So…I started out to write a short blog past and this has gotten rather long. I have a few hundred pages to read for my next residency, which starts January 8th. So I’ll just go do that now.

 

4 Responses so far

  1. 1. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    For what it’s worth, I’ll be in the same session at Rainforest if you have essays torturing you. I know academic stuff. And I like the fun of it 😀 Glad that you are enjoying the program and I have a feeling the poetry will do fabulous things for your prose.

  2. 2. Mary Alexandra Agner

    > They pay about 1% as much as a story

    When they pay. Sigh.

  3. 3. brenda

    Yes. Poetry is one of our under-appreciated skills, at least in the money marketplace.

  4. 4. brenda

    Great! I’m looking forward to seeing you there. And yes, I think poetry will help my prose! Now I just need some time to write prose…