Creative Writing

MFA Programs: Are They Worth It?

A student writing in a library

So you want to be an author. You’ve graduated, survived a few writing workshops, and produced pieces you’re proud of. But you still need to learn a few things. You need to find your voice. You think, if I could find the time or had people to read my work, I could do this. Your mind drifts toward thoughts of MFA programs and wine-fueled discussions of literature. Of the day you’ll move to New York City and walk the same streets so many of the greats have.

You’ve even had your doubts—is being a writer something you are serious about? Could you be happy doing something else? Because if you can, then you should do it. Being a writer isn’t for the weak of heart. But you’ve pushed past those doubts, sort of (we all have those days), and came through better for it.

You may very well be the voice of your generation, but there’s more than one way to go from writer to published author. So before you enroll, take a step back and consider your options.

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The Cost

According to CostHelper, the average cost of an MFA program at a public university is $30,000. But if you’re attending an out-of-state university, you’re looking at closer to $50,000 or $60,000. In fact, one term alone at a private university can be roughly $18,000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s May 2016 report, writers and authors earn a median annual wage of $61,240. But this number is flawed for several reasons. Certain authors, like James Patterson for instance, earn millions, while less-established writers’ income varies drastically. The lowest ten percent earned less than $29,380. Some have compared the cost of an MFA program in relation to what graduates can expect to earn to highway robbery.

Writing Apps for Every Writer

Writers may not be cooks, knives at the ready, but we certainly need our own set of tools to get the job done. The problem is what works for one writer may not (and usually doesn’t) work for every writer. There are no set rules: don’t use a bread knife to carve a chicken, for instance. If the bread knife leads to a finished novel, then fuck rules, right? Instead, focus on which tools work best for you, which brings me to writing applications.

To be clear, I will be focusing on internet-based, no downloading necessary writing applications in this post (the majority of which are free). In the course of my research, I was a bit stunned by how many options are available to today’s writers. Below I’ve included some of my favorites. Take a look, and see how incorporating the writing apps below into your creative process could help you be a more productive writer.

750 Words

I’ve been using 750 Words for less than a week, but so far it’s keeping me on task. That is, I’m accomplishing the goal of writing 750 words, at least, daily. For thirty days, the website is free to use. After that, the creators ask that you become a member to continue using the service. The fee is $5/month. It offers a distraction-free writing environment, foregoing bells and whistles. The goal-based, minimalist environment encourages you to produce something (anything) every day, a habit many find necessary to being a writer at all.

When I sit down and log into my account, I don’t necessarily have a plan. I free write. I resist the urge to edit, to self-critique. Whether you continue to use the service or not after the end of your thirty-day trial, you’ll still have access to your writing and stats—another great feature. And honestly, at the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee, if it keeps you trudging onwards, do it.

An example of stats from 750 Words
An example of writing stats from 750 Words (Credit: 750 Words)

 

Summer 2017 Reading List

Summer officially arrives on June 20th, but I like to plan ahead. With college now two years behind me (yikes!), I’ve finally remembered what it feels like to read for pleasure. Not because my professor said so, or, you know, because the book has their name on it. The act of it feels like being reunited with an old friend—we’ve picked up right where we left off. I have a lot of reading to catch up on, and there’s no better time to do so than summer. Here are the books on my summer 2017 reading list.

 

Lucky Boy

Author: Shanthi Sekaran
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date: January 10, 2017

Solimar (Soli) Castro Valdez is eighteen when she leaves Oaxaca, crossing the US/Mexican border and landing on her cousin’s doorstep in Berkeley, California. Silvia, her cousin, is a housekeeper for the well-to-do Cassidy family. By the time Soli arrives, she’s also pregnant. While motherhood wasn’t the plan, her baby boy, nicknamed “Nacho,” keeps Soli grounded in this foreign world. When she is arrested and detained, Nacho falls into the custody of the foster system and, inevitably, under the care of Kavya Reddy and her husband, Rishi.

Kavya is a chef at a UC Berkeley sorority house. In her mid-thirties, she’s unexpectedly beginning to feel the pull of motherhood. When fulfilling this desire proves to be more challenging than she expected,
it takes a strain on her marriage. With Nacho suddenly thrust into Kavya’s life, she attempts to become the mother she always dreamed of being, even if that identity is wrapped up together with someone else’s child.

An emotional journey, there are no villains in this story, and there are no heroes. Sekaran gives a human face to the timely topic of illegal immigration.


Fever Dream

Author: Samanta Schweblin
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Release Date: January 10, 2017

Schweblin’s novel is difficult to describe. Translated from Spanish into English by Megan McDowell, Fever Dream is a story of a young mother, Amanda, dying in a rural hospital, and the young boy, David, sitting by her side. Together, they attempt to weave together the events that led to Amanda’s illness, and the result is a haunting, dream-like narrative “where souls shift from sick bodies to healthy hosts and poisonous toxins seep under the skin upon contact with the grass.” And while David is not Amanda’s son, the two have met before.

At their vacation home, Amanda and her daughter, Nina, encountered David’s mother, Carla, spinning tales of her son on more than one occasion. Their eventual, frightening introduction causes Amanda to throw Carla and David out of her home. Not too long after, the three women meet again. In her hospital bed, Amanda tries to put the fragments of her memories back together, how that reunion led her down this path. Readers will begin to question how reliable a narrator Amanda actually is.

The Difference Between Myths, Legends, and Fairy Tales

Myths, legends, fairy tales—we know them well, the stories we pass down from generation to generation. Add in folktales and fables, and you have yourself a plethora of names for the sort of stories people often lump under the same category.

Yet each of these represents a story with its own distinct characteristics. The terms are not interchangeable.

Editors and readers have certain expectations associated with different genres, and you’ll want to play into those.

Myths

Myths explain the reasons why things have come to be—why our world looks and feels and works the way it does. Think creation myths. These provide a worldview, telling the reader how it is that a certain practice, belief, or natural event came about. How the world itself came about.

Gods and goddesses, in all their various shapes and traditions and cultures, fall under this category. We are living in the mud on Big Turtle’s back. The Fates are spinning their thread, doling out misery and suffering. He said “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Myths are old, ancient things, generally speaking.

They inspire legends.

Book Abandonment, and Why It’s Okay

Bookshelf

Readers often feel a sense of guilt when abandoning a book. It could be simply that we’re not quitters, determined to finish a project or task no matter how unenjoyable. We’ve committed to this book, checked it out at the library or paid good money for it at the bookstore, and we are damn well going to finish it. Even if it’s the last thing we do.

Maybe we’re also competitive or, if you will, gluttonous. We want to read as many books as we can get our hands on. We’ve told ourselves we were going to read X amount of books this year (I’m currently behind on my personal 2017 Goodreads Reading Challenge). If we can simply push through this book, it’s one more toward that goal, but in doing so, we end up slowing ourselves down.

The reasons we choose to give up on a book vary. It’s naive to assume that because you like a book everyone else you know will too. Reading is subjective. Sometimes your favorite blogger or Goodreads reviewer will fail you.

Here are a few reasons it might be time to let a book go.

The Ways I Use Poetry

When I was in grade school, I used poetry for entertainment. My grade school had regular book fairs, and one of the first books I bought on my own was The Random House Book of Poetry for Children because, in the first few pages, it had a funny poem about a boy that would take off all his clothing and could never figure out how to put it back on. The book was large and full of various poems. When there wasn’t anything to watch on television, or when I finished some of my homework, I’d sit in my room and read through my book of poetry and try to memorize the poems that were on the pages. As I aged, the appeal of the book of children’s poetry faded, and it was placed into a box and given to Goodwill.

It wasn’t until high school that I started to use poetry again. This time, I used poetry as a form of self-expression, as many teens end up doing. Sometimes I wrote poems and sometimes I wrote song lyrics, but they were always dark and angry and honestly, not very good. I used poetry to help form my self-identity and to work through an extreme level of teenage angst. These works often found themselves on napkins, or on ripped up pieces of paper, or inside of one of my textbooks. The poetry I wrote back then is long gone, which is probably a good thing. If I had to classify the type of use this poetry was, it would fall under the category of misuse.

We’re Back!

Well, folks, it has been one long hiatus, and for that, we apologize.

Last year, as graduation loomed before me, I decided I needed to take a step back. I was worried that I was putting too much pressure on myself to “do it all,” and that because of that, any posts written here would ultimately suffer.

A lot has happened since I made that decision. Back then, I was living in Portland, Oregon, while earning a master’s degree in writing and book publishing, juggling a flurry of internships and part-time jobs. After moving back home in March 2015, I started working at a Southern California nonfiction book publisher, editing everything from “serious” art books for adults to quirky books about literary dinosaurs for children.

Now I’m freelancing and returning to the world of blogging, which for years has been a much needed creative outlet—one that I’ve been anxious to get back to. That’s the short of it, at least.

So for those new readers who stumbled to this post and for those past readers who gave us a chance, here’s a little bit about what you can expect from this blog. First and foremost, a lot about the writing life and the stories we love (and probably the ones we don’t). I don’t promise to be an expert writer or editor. I just turned 26. I go into each project assuming most of what I write will be crap, but that’s okay, because within all that bad will be a little good that I can shape into something I’m proud of. For me, this blog has always been a way for me to explore, learn, and lay the groundwork for a creative life.

Expect posts about that journey.

A new post will be up next week (an updated edition of one of our most popular, so I hope you enjoy it!). For now, be sure to read my co-editor’s post, The Ways I Use Poetry, which she wrote in anticipation of us presenting several of our published poems tomorrow on a panel titled, “Poetry in (Digital) Process: A Poetry Reading and Publishing Discussion with Pomona Valley Review,” at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association Conference in Pasadena.

Until next time.

Poems for National Poetry Month

April is my favorite time of year. Not for the showers (although, rain’s nice), nor for the beginning of spring; rather, April is my favorite time of the year because it’s officially National Poetry Month and that means I get to spam everyone I know on Facebook with poems everyday, and sometimes twice a day, for a whole month. It’s also the month of William Shakespeare’s birth and death, so I like to pay special attention to his sonnets and poems, as well as poetry that celebrates his work, during my favorite time of the year.

It’s really an English degree holder’s dream.

I want to share poetry with everyone this time of the year, and you are not immune. Here’s a poetry month starter kit of poetry for you to share with your friends, or to just read an enjoy, during my favorite month of the year.

Politics and Poetry: John Milton

John Milton lived during the Restoration period (1600-1798), also known as the Age of Enlightenment which occurred just after the Renaissance (1485-1660), in England and was one of the most celebrated poets of the era.

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Is it weird that I really dig John Milton’s hair?

It was Milton’s goal to not just be a poet, but to be a great poet. He achieved this by hiring tutors to continue his education after his schooling had finished. In addition to studying hard to be a poet, Milton wrote and he wrote a lot. John Milton was a prolific poet, creating an extensive body of work from sonnets to a twelve book-spanning epic poem.

What Milton is probably most recognized for is that twelve book epic poem, better known as Paradise Lost. This epic poem recounts the fall of man from the Christian bible from the perspective of none other than Satan himself.

The Martian v. The Martian

The Martian novel, written by Andy Weir, is a self-publishing success. In 2011, he self-published the book and it got enough attention to garner him a contract with Crown Books. In 2014, The Martian was re-released with the help of Crown and became one of the top selling books on Amazon.Com. And then it became a movie.

I started reading The Martian last year and, between applying to graduate programs, moving (twice!), picking up a few side jobs (on top of my main jobs), and all the rest of life stuff that gets in the way of fun stuff, it took me a while to finish the book. Mind you, I really enjoyed the book as I was reading it and I even got students of mine to read it as well.

Now that I’ve finally finished reading and watching The Martian, I can compare and contrast the two different media used to tell Andy Weir’s story of an astronaut left behind on Mars for your (and more likely my) amusement and declare one better than the other (because all things must be ranked!).

If you haven’t read the book or watched the movie, this post contains spoilers. Though, if you’ve clicked on this blog because of the title, I’m assuming you kind of already knew that, but I thought I’d be nice and post a warning anyway.