In the past week, I’ve gone to a panel on grad school for creative writers, a Q&A with essayist Elena Passarello, the In Print reading with authors of recently released first books, and a panel on writing and publishing. If I managed to go to all that and not learn anything, there would be something seriously wrong with me.
I talked yesterday about the experience of helping to promote In Print and the importance of participating in literary events. Today, I’m going to tell you seven things I’ve learned in the last week and hopefully further convince you to go get involved.
1) Ask questions. Answer them. Push farther.
This is something that I did semi-unconsciously already. I don’t know if you can write anything without asking questions of yourself. But in the Q&A with Elena Passarello, she talked about how her essays often come about because she starts asking questions. More importantly, she keeps asking them. She said that her first questions are usually pretty dumb, and it’s not until she keeps pushing for answers and more questions that she gets to the heart of her essay.
It reminded me of a small exercise we did at Alpha, where they gave us a prompt – just a short phrase – and said, “Got your first idea? Okay, now throw it out. Your first idea is the one that everyone else will think of. Keep going. Keep pushing.” I don’t push myself nearly enough sometimes.
2) If you go to grad school for creative writing, don’t take the shortest path. Savor the time.
The panel on grad school for creative writers included five BSU professors that all had at least an MFA in creative writing and, in one case, a PhD. The big lesson that really struck me was that just because there are two-year low residency programs to get your MFA doesn’t mean they’re the best choice. For some people they might be, but the panel made a good point. It’s a time in your life when you’re really getting to just concentrate on your writing and nothing else. That’s not something that exists in the real world. It should be savored. Get a three-year program, or a four-year if you can.
Also, two-year programs don’t generally give out a lot of money to attend them. So that’s something to think about.
3) Stop thinking of your book as a book. Just write it.
The panel at In Print got on the topic of this fantasy that writers get into about their first books. We think about how beautiful it’s going to be and clearly everyone will love us. We conduct interviews with ourselves in our heads. We put ourselves on a schedule – “Have to get published by 25, then this by 30, this by 35…”
Problem is, that can really hinder your writing. You’re seeing your book as this glorious object sitting on the shelves at Barnes & Noble or nestled into an Amazon box. You’re putting a lot of pressure on it, and you’re not really writing. Across the panel, all of the authors said that once they stopped seeing their book as this idea, it was much easier to write. This is a lesson I really need to learn.
4) If you’re always drawn to the same topic, stop fighting it.
At the Q&A, Elena Passarello said that she went into grad school thinking, “I’m going to write about trucker’s wives!” Eugene Cross wanted to write about anything but his hometown of Erie, PA.
That didn’t really work for either of them. Elena kept drifting towards other topics and had to force herself to stay on trucker’s wives. Eugene wrote about other towns, but they all sounded like Erie. Eventually, they stopped fighting it and ended up much happier for it. Sometimes you just have to write about something. Let it happen.
5) Stay in touch with your professors.
This qualifies both for grad school and for writing in general. If you go to grad school five years after you get your undergrad and you need letters of recommendation, will your professors remember you? Did you talk to them at all after graduation?
Professors of creative writing tend to be published and active writers. That means that they aren’t just teaching you about lyric essays and Freitag’s pyramid – they’re a connection. They know the writing world. They’ve been where you are, and they might help you get your foot in if you keep in touch with them.
6) Go to readings, panels, everything.
I talked about this yesterday, but seriously. Go to all of them. Go meet writers that you would never have heard about if you weren’t at a reading in an indie bookstore. Go to panels and learn something new, or go, “I can do better than that,” and get on a panel yourself. Participate. Learn.
7) I really, really want this.
It’s not news to me that I want to be a writer. I’ve known that since I was ten. What In Print and meeting Elena Passarello, Eugene Cross, and Marcus Wicker taught me is just how badly I want it. I want to improve my writing until I’m good enough to captivate an audience with my words. You know that giddy, floaty feeling you get after you finish a really good book? I want to give people that feeling. I want to meet people who have read my book and like it and I want to talk to them. That’s the world I’m meant to be in. I just have to get to work and really make it happen.
What about you guys? What are some things that you’ve learned in the last week? Hit up the comments below.