To MFA or Not to MFA: The Question That's Still on Every Writer's Mind

by Cameron Price

Okay, so education (and just being alive) requires a lot of money. With this in mind, why would one invest in a degree that guarantees absolutely no promise of a job on the other side?

To begin, let’s just assume that you have reached the point where you know that you NEED to be a writer and that no other calling under the moon could possibly satisfy you. If this is the case– and is it for anyone 100% of the time?– then why go into debt for a two year degree when you could just, well, write? There are many strongly differing opinions on the matter.

Writer and poet Donald Hall, former Poet Laureate of the United States in 2006, is one of the most outspoken critics of the MFA degree, and he has some good points. In his essay “Poetry and Ambition,” he writes: “The workshop schools us to produce the McPoem, which is ‘a mold in plaster, / Made with no loss of time,’ with no waste of effort, with no strenuous questioning as to merit. If we attend a workshop we must bring something to class or we do not contribute.”

McPoem? Harsh. But this critique comes from Hall’s experience of seeing too many programs churn out writers who have merely been trained to mimic what has gone before them. He argues in his essay that writers must have ambition of the right sort– the kind in which the “petty ego” is sacrificed in service to the poem (or narrative) itself. More often than not, Hall feels that MFA programs encourage the opposite and are not cultivating the proper literary immersion, independence of thought, and true ambition needed to write innovative literature.

I agree that one gets what they put into an MFA. Or into anything, really. The writer must already exist inside the writer if that inner-writer is to be developed and coaxed out...if that makes any sense. In short, an MFA isn't going to make you a better writer. YOU are going to make you a better writer only if you work, research, learn, live, and (most importantly) write.

These things can happen in an MFA program, contrary to Hall’s belief. Poet Arielle Greenberg believes that, if treated in the right way, the MFA can act as a supportive green house environment for budding writers. Greenberg writes, “I’d be thrilled if we lived in a nation—like some others in the world—where people gathered in local cafes and plazas to recite great verse and breathe it in, but the truth is, in America, this happens primarily in the classrooms and reading series and conferences and living rooms of MFA students, alumni, and faculty—and for this we should be thankful" (from "A [Slightly Qualified] Defense of MFA Programs: 6 Benefits of Graduate School"). Greenberg illuminates the benefits of the MFA program, which range from cultivating community, teaching the student what and how to read, and finding one's voice and unique set of values.

Both of these writers provide potential students with nuggets of wisdom. I think it’s safe to say that pursuing an MFA is an individual decision– especially if you know that an MFA isn’t going to make you a better writer. The more appropriate question would be: what is going to grow you best? Despite opposing views on whether to get an MFA, I think one thing can be agreed upon: you need to write in order to be a writer, MFA or not. So stop surfing the web and go do it!

Graduating With a BFA

by Alexis Lounsbury

In my final residency at Goddard College, which was the weekend of my Spring 2014 graduation, I walked around campus in a haze. It seemed surreal that after worrying over study plans semester after semester, that was not the case this time. I tried to take in the smell of the rain on the grass, or how the quiet of the Pratt Library made me feel more in tune with what I was reading. There was a hum all over campus that seemed to feed the starving creative beast in me. Then, on that fateful Sunday afternoon, I clutched the hand of a good friend and fellow graduate as we walked into the Haybarn Theater for the last time, performing “With a Little Help from My Friends." It was a perfect choice, far better than my half-serious idea of walking in to "The Imperial March" from Star Wars.

As a student sitting in on previous graduation ceremonies, I would listen to the advisors explain the involved, professional senior projects of their students, and thought how impossible they seemed to be. I was plagued by insecurity--some graduates seemed to have produced over five hundred pages of work. They had stood before their peers all weekend, giving eloquent graduation presentations, and now they stood up to be erudite and thank everyone who had a hand in supporting them along the way. It didn't seem possible to my pre-graduation self, as I only had a seed of an idea of what I may end up with for my senior project. By the time I stood up to make my own speech, bumbling through tears, I understood how much work had really gone into it, but also what I was walking away with.

Receiving your BFA in Creative Writing at Goddard means that you have taken the seed of an idea and created a finished project. You've had the opportunity to learn theory while simultaneously learning how to work alone, something that can be difficult to become comfortable with, but you have mastered it. Throughout your undergrad, you have likely heard the phrase “trust the process” so much it's become an inside joke, but you have shown that you understand the creative process. More impressively, you have shown how you fit inside that process. What works for you? Writing in the morning or at night? In a cafe or in a closet with a desk from Wal-Mart, which you spent four hours assembling? You figured out your genre, but also how to research. You learned how to keep a deadline, and to become an expert in using criticism constructively.

From where I stand now, having been in the “real” world for a few months (it's the exact same as the previous world I was living in), my job is to tell you the most important resource you are graduating with: your fellow graduates. The incredible, talented group with whom you are graduating will never cease to amaze you, so make a concerted effort to keep these people in your life. They are entering the same difficult waters, armed with exactly what you have. They will be indispensable in many things, such as keeping your sanity in a difficult economy, entering the world of writing, navigating grad school, and the unfortunate possibility of moving back in with your parents. But chief among the reasons to stay in touch with your fellow graduates is to keep Goddard in your life.

James Baldwin, We Celebrate You

by Lauren Wingate

Today would have been the 90th birthday of American essayist, novelist, and poet James Baldwin. To celebrate this, many schools are introducing his writing for the first time into their classrooms, challenging the idea that youth are unable to handle his language and frank discussions about race, sex, and gender. The New York Live Arts: Live Ideas Festival has declared its second annual celebration "The Year of Baldwin," in which they will dedicate the whole of their five-day festival to the works of Baldwin. This will include the premier of Nothing Personal, a play based on the novel written in collaboration with Richard Avedon.

James Baldwin, NYC 1975 // Photo by Anthony Barboza

James Baldwin, NYC 1975 // Photo by Anthony Barboza

It is with deep intentionality that Baldwin’s literary voice is resurfacing. We find ourselves in a time in which the conversations about and understandings of race, gender, and sexuality have become destitute, especially in classrooms, due to the misguided belief that we live in a post racial, non-biased society. Educators, both inside and outside of the classroom, are encouraging us all to acknowledge the ways that we are separate in order to move forward in honoring our likeness.

I discovered Baldwin in high school. I admit it was his name that first caught my ears. Being part of a youth-driven spoken word community, I heard the names of several thought-changing people of color without knowing too much about them. I took it upon myself to research these people, and Baldwin's name came up so often that I had to investigate. The first quote I highlighted was found in his collection of essays, The Fire Next Time:

"You were born into a society, which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned… in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, “you exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine -- but trust your experience." (8-9)

This passage spoke directly to the internal struggles I was faced with--ideas of truth as they related to personal versus social views of reality. Baldwin’s voice became a subtle soundtrack to my learning. He provided me with determination, and held me in a continuum of historical presence that I needed in order to attune my action to my intention in the world.

It is this insight that he still offers us. Thank you, and happy birthday, James Baldwin.

Reading as a Means to Clearer Prose

by Fawn McManigal

We writers hear the recommendation all the time: read everything you can get your hands on, then read some more. Maybe you’ve also been advised to read outside the genre in which you write: articles, obituaries, recipes, stats. Read! Read! Read! I agree. Read the works of others. But don’t forget to read your own work--out loud, in front of a group of peers.

If you’re the type of person who reads aloud during revision, congratulations. Hearing our words permits us to see the language on the page more clearly. This practice of reading to ourselves, however, does not afford the same level of care and precision that occurs when we anticipate reading that same piece to an audience.

This truth became clear when I was asked to read one of my essays at a reception for the journal in which it had been published. During mock readings of this piece, I was surprised by the number of times I stopped reading because something disrupted the story’s flow. Several sentences required that I move a clause, add or remove a comma, or insert a more suitable word--all to a piece that I, and the editor of the journal, had considered finished. Had I edited in this way prior to submission, the essay would have been tighter.

Though the act of reading your work in front of your peers may be terrifying, it won’t ruin you. For those feeling hesitant, try to start simply. Select a venue where authors are limited to roughly five minutes of reading time. It takes about two minutes to read one page of prose aloud. Choose a piece or number of poems you think you can read, without rushing, in the specified amount of time. Then practice. Time yourself. If you don’t finish in time, edit the work to fit or choose another piece. Practice some more. Then go rock your reading. Afterward, you’ll want to do it again.

Bloomsday, Revisited

By Kori Waring

June 16th was Bloomsday, the only internationally celebrated holiday honoring one particular work of art: James Joyce’s Ulysses. One hundred and ten years to the day after Joyce’s novel takes place, literary nerds of a certain breed congregated in cities across the world to dress up like this:

And do things like this:

image.jpg

And eat this for lunch:

gorgonzola sandwich, burgundy

In belated celebration of Bloomsday, I want to share a list I compiled—in a totally normal, non-obsessive way—of portmanteau words (i.e. words made by combining two or more words) that James Joyce invented for the third chapter of Ulysses (“Proteus”). For equally normal, non-obsessive reasons, I’ve organized them not alphabetically, but by parts of speech, and can tell you that of the sixty-four invented portmanteaux I counted, 55% are adjectives, 39% are nouns, 3% are verbs, and 3% are adverbs. Also, because there were so many adjectives, I broke those down by their constituent parts of speech too. Y’know. Like you do.

Adjectives:

(noun+participle) noun:

“…strandentwining cable of all flesh” 
“…whiteheaped corn”
“…whitemaned seahorses”
“…skeweyed Walter”
“…chalkscrawled backdoors”
“…bloodbeaked prows” 
“…peacocktwittering lashes”
“…milkoozing fruits”
“…fourworded wavespeech”
“…allwombing tomb”

(noun+adjective) noun: 
“…hundredheaded rabble”
“…froggreen wormwood”
“…saucestained plates”
“…gumheavy serpentplants”
“…windraw face”

(adjective/adverb+participle) noun: 
“…lowskimming gull”
“…seawardpointed ears”
“…longlashed eyes”

(verb+adverb) noun
“…pushedback chairs”
“…turnedup trousers”

(noun+noun) noun:
“…whiterose ivory”

noun+adjective:
snotgreen
bluesilver
basiliskeyed
saltwhite
saltblue

noun+participle: 
redpanting
moondrawn
horsenostrilled
ghostcandled

adjective+participle: 
sanguineflowered
myriadislanded

adjective+adjective: 
allbright

3+ word adjectives: 
brightwindbridled
shellcocoacoloured 

Nouns:
seaspawn
seawrack
ghostwoman
contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality
razorshells
facebones
stoneheaps
whalemeat
lacefringe
wavenoise
dogskull
dogsniff
monkwords
marybeads
roguewords
manshape
serpentplants
wavespeech
foampool
corpsegas
seachange
seadeath
creamfruit
abstrusiosities
shellgrit

Verbs:
bigdrumming
loudlatinlaughing 

Adverbs:
duskward
greengoldenly


Do I have opinions about the effect these words create in “Proteus”? I do. Would those opinions take up more space than is reasonable for a blog post? They would. You don’t need me, though. Read Ulysses and decide for yourself. It has a reputation for being a tough read, and it’s true that you have to be willing to let some allusions fly over your head, but mostly Ulysses requires one thing: forget everything you know about reading fiction, and let the book teach you how to read it. I promise it’s worth the effort. James Joyce will blow your mind.

I’ll end with a quote. Stephen Dedalus thinks this in a self-deprecating way in “Proteus,” but I think in an odd, Joycean way it does a pretty good job of capturing why we read literature, and certainly why you should read Ulysses:

“When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once…”

Yes. 

Happy Bloomsday, internet.

Why Net Neutrality Matters

by Kate Weiss

Service providers (or ISPs) don’t discriminate between bits of data--this is one of the basic building blocks of the internet. No matter where the data is coming from or what website you are looking at, the data going to your computer is treated the same by your internet service provider. So whether you are watching Netflix or checking to see if a book is available at your local library, the company you pay to bring the internet to your house treats each search the same.

Until very recently, ISPs have treated data like phone companies do. There are no priority phone lines. Everyone, from individuals to telemarketing companies, uses the same wires. So no matter whom you are calling, the data is treated equally, so if the phone line is not busy, you are put through. It has always been that way with the internet, too. Whether you are watching a TV show, checking your Comcast email, or reading the newest issue of Duende, your ISP treats the data equally. This is how the internet works. It is how Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, believes it should work[1]. There are no priority lines.

Now, though, Verizon and Comcast—which are quickly becoming our only options for bringing internet into our homes—want to charge their customers differently for different types of data, and charge businesses more to use the priority line. Giant companies that can afford the priority line will be in first line, gaining priority access to the screens of internet-users, while self-published journals, blogs, and websites will all be at risk waiting in the second line.

If our phone lines worked the way Verizon and Comcast want the internet to work, with a priority line for companies who can afford it, and a second line for everyone else, big companies would get priority. In a January 2011 column on Locus Online, Cory Doctorow makes a great analogy that I am going to adopt here: imagine calling your favorite indie bookstore to see if they have a book on hand, but instead of the line ringing at the bookstore, you hear a robotic female voice say, “Between the Covers has not paid for priority service. Please press 1 to be immediately connected to an Amazon sales reparative, or hold for 5 minutes while we connect you to Between the Covers.”

Amazon, in this theoretical example, has paid the phone company to be in the priority line whenever you try to call your local bookstore. But phone lines don’t actually work this way and never have. This is because they are treated and legislated as a public utility. The advocators for net neutrality argue that the internet should also be treated like a public utility, and that no one, not even wealthy companies, can pay to have priority for their data.

Cory Doctorow explains what is at stake here, and it is everything:

“Here’s something every creator, every free speech advocate, every copyright maximalist and every copyfighter should agree on: allowing the channels to audiences to be cornered by a handful of incumbents is bad news for all of us….This is the big fight for us – the fight over who gets to decide who will be heard and how.”


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-23205244

A Chill Up the Spine

By Cerridwen Aker

I’ve been sitting with fear a lot lately. Not in a crippling sense, but casually--like we arrange to meet a couple times a week for coffee. But still, it’s there. So I've started to explore it to better understand how fear can both control and liberate us as writers.

Adrienne Rich writes, “Lying is done with words and also with silence.” As I work on my senior thesis, I'm attempting to slice those barriers of silence within my family, and to expose narratives of trauma and redemption in my maternal line. But I have come to realize that with the nature of this work, it is easy to keep myself at a distance. There is safety in looking at it from afar, and that’s a problem.

A dear friend and Goddard College BFA graduate, Seema Reza, posted an exercise to her blog a few months ago (you really should check it out here). Her assignment was to propose twelve specific unanswerable questions to yourself, and then try to answer them.

And I did.

I bartend, usually late. Afterward I ride the train home through a quiet city with the slick sound of rain against the windows. During such a train ride I began to scratch out my twelve, and you know what came up? A boatload of fear. Sitting with those twelve questions was so uncomfortable. All my questions represent uncertainty, loss, discontent, shame, and the ways I run from actualizing myself as a writer and an individual.

Then I started thinking about our journal, which “seeks authenticity & soulfulness, earthiness & expressiveness, a chill up the spine.” How powerful that ‘authenticity’ and 'a chill up the spine’ are in the same sentence, representing our ideals at Duende. While these qualities are an accumulation of things, sure, I believe fear is at the core. 

Personally, I tend to evade conflict. I’m highly skilled in avoidance tactics. But lately I’m seeing fear as something else—not polarizing, but inspiring. Something that chases us forward. And that’s just it—a chase. I run while it follows, but that’s the point; to drive me toward something raw. It is visceral: a spasm in the stomach, curling toes, a chill up the spine.

Whatever you are currently working on or thinking of submitting, I encourage you to sit with this doubt, at least for a little while. Write your twelve questions. You won’t be disappointed. There are only a few days left to submit to Duende. Share your fear with us.  

 

On Women & Race & Wikipedia

by Amy Cain

Remember when Wikipedia got called out for being sexist last year? It was first brought to public attention in a 2013 New York Times blog post, in which novelist Amanda Filipacchi described how women were being systematically removed from Wikipedia's American Novelists category, and filed away in a new sub-category: American Women Novelists. As a result, the American Novelists category was becoming...well...just a long list of men.

Of this trend, Filipacchi writes, "People who go to Wikipedia to get ideas for whom to hire, or honor, or read, and look at that list of 'American Novelists' for inspiration, might not even notice that the first page of it includes far more men than women...it's probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world." It's obviously an excellent point, but it was laughable to the Wikipedia editors who were responsible for the change. One of them called the whole thing a "hullabaloo" and chalked the changes up to a mere issue of diffusing categories. Nevertheless, and despite the supposed importance of sub-categories, women were quickly restored to their original category of American Novelists.

As women in the literary world, we are not ignorant to the ways in which male writers are privileged. Despite the fact that many folks talk about how far we've come, that it has "gotten so much better" for women, we still have a difficult time being taken seriously in a literary landscape dominated by men. However, as I researched this brief Wikipedia scandal, I was surprised to find that while women were rushing to defend the inclusion of women novelists on Wikipedia, they failed to point out another glaring issue: the lack of women of color represented in these categories.

As a quick experiment, I went through the category of 21st-Century American Novelists on Wikipedia. Skipping all of the male novelists, I plodded through various letters of the alphabet, tallying up women of color represented vs. white women represented. My findings were not surprising, as women of color are some of the most marginalized and underrepresented people in America. I found that under "A" there were 46 white women and only 9 women of color. Under "E" there were 30 white women and only 3 women of color. Under "J" there were 32 white women and only 5 women of color.

My point is not to call out Wikipedia yet again. My point is that when we rush to defend our positions in literature, especially from a feminist standpoint, we need to be aware of those we are excluding. What does it mean that so few women of color appear on the 21st-Century American Novelists list? I suppose if I had to hazard a guess, I might say that it is both a reflection of Wikipedia's editor pool (comprised largely of white males), and also of the publishing industry in general, which runs rampant with institutionalized racism. But, you know, that's just a guess.

What can be done about this? Well, we can start by talking about it. Our society is not colorblind, no matter how much white people like to pretend it is. Racism is real, and yes, it is all of our problem. And if you are white, it is definitely your problem. Why are people so afraid to talk about race? Of course we need to point out things like sexism--duh! But we also need to recognize the other gaping holes in our literary landscape. People of color are writing, and too many of their voices remain unheard. So ask yourself--what can I be doing about this?