Tuesday 7 August 2018

Guest post: Write, then write, and write again.

Guest post by A. Poythress

Writing creatively for an assignment takes a certain sort of mindset. Assignments don’t care about whatever ideas are taking up your attention, or your hopes and dreams for what you write. Assignments exist to make you sit down and finish them, even if you despise them or think you don’t need them. And from what I’ve learned in my own MFA program experience, you will have more assignments than you will know what to do with, especially the ones you don’t want to do. I have deadlines and projects and tasks that hit me from every side and I don’t have time for anything else. I certainly don’t have time to think about what an assignment might become once I’ve finished it.

That’s where the title of this essay comes in. While I’m taking classes during the semester, I have no brain power for things like submissions or publishing. All I have the energy for is making sure I have the minimum page count met and my sources cited correctly in the bibliography. Getting the words out is what counts. My professors and classmates and cohort are all there to tell me what they think of them (and boy will they). Once a piece is out of me, to be perfectly honest, I don’t go back to it until the semester is over, unless it’s one of the very few “full movements” I write per semester. Not because I hate the piece or think it’s not worth my time, but because there is no time for it. Not with the next due dates looming over my head like some sort of academic guillotine.

That, I’ve found, is what summer breaks are for. Most MFA programs don’t seem to have summer classes, so you’ve got anywhere between two and four months (contingent on your program) to take all those assignments you sped through like your life depended on it and fix them up. To a lesser degree, you can do this during your winter breaks, but as you’ll probably only have a few weeks breathing room before the madness begins again, there might not be much you can get done. That’s okay. You should really take it. Burn out is a real thing and it’s really scary. Take breaks where you can, when you can. You won’t regret it. I certainly don’t.

When the summer after my first year as an MFA candidate started this past May, I had a list of twenty-two pieces from my two previous semesters that needed editing before they could be sent out for potential publication. That doesn’t count the three pieces I started but didn’t finish during that same time that I wanted to work on before the summer was up. They came from lists of assignments for my past classes. You might have that many, you might have more, or less. What matters is you have a pile of them, all sitting there waiting for you. But how do you take something that you had to hand in for credit and turn it into a piece someone might (potentially) pay you for?

For an assignment, I don’t look too closely at what I’m writing. I want to get the raw bones laid down. The structure. The foundation. I want to make sure my frame is there, so I can go back to it later and hang the details from the rafters (is that how you build a house? I’m a writer, not a carpenter, obviously. Carpenters are the ones who build houses, right?). I’m not worried about editing it more than to give a once-over to make sure there aren’t typos or glaring incongruities. It doesn’t matter that it’s not perfect-that’s not the point. What I care about is finishing it so that I can get feedback from my professors and fellow students that tells me if I’m heading in the right direction, or if I need to rethink things entirely.

Here are a bunch of quotes from much more famous and much better writers than I am:
  • “The first draft is a skeleton…just bare bones. The rest of the story comes later with revising.” —Judy Blume
  • “The first draft reveals the art; revision reveals the artist.” —Michael Lee
  • “Don’t get it right—get it written.” —James Thurber
  • “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” —Terry Pratchett
They’re all talking about first drafts of stories or novels, but it can be applied to school work as well! I think of all my assignments as my first draft-they don’t have to be anything other than my first go around. I don’t try to make them perfect. I don’t try to get them “just right.” I just finish them. Then I can come back and spiff them up later.

Once it’s time to sit with a piece and fix it so I can shop it out, I look at it with a very different eye. No longer am I looking at what my professor was expecting, or impressing one specific group with my wit and creativity. I want to make sure a broad audience can take it in and digest it and (hopefully) appreciate it. I can’t make it so esoteric that no one will understand it. I can’t think my “experimental” style that I played around with in the safety of the classroom will impress every magazine or publication. I have to take something rough and polish it to the point where other people will like it. We might say that we write for ourselves, first and foremost, but that’s cat dirt if you want to make a living with your craft.

"Friends" by Laura-Anca Adascalitei, © 2018.
Take bite for example. When I was initially writing it for my first workshop, I just wanted to make sure it fulfilled the requirement for a “full movement”: that there was a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that it met the ten-page minimum requirement. There were no other guidelines. I had the idea because I’d been working with my therapist a lot about my gender presentation and I’d bitten my lip in class on the day we first started working on the movement. That was it. I thought about a girl who couldn’t stop bleeding because she couldn’t be honest with herself, and then I wrote until I had a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s all I did with it, in that class. My professor had comments about it here and there that I noted, but didn’t have time to do anything about.

When I went back to it during my first winter break so I could potentially find it a home, I took those comments my professor gave me and I applied them. Could I heighten the isolation of Kat and the loneliness of her small town? Could I make her a more well-rounded character? Could I slow down in some places, speed up in others? Could I heighten the tension? These were all questions I had to ask and answer, because they were questions potential future readers would have. I wouldn’t be able to sit with them like I did my professor and fill in all the blanks for them. They had to be explicitly or implicitly stated in the piece, because it had to stand for itself, away from me and my explanations. While you can defend an assignment until you’re out of breath, once something is out for publication, there’s nothing more you can do for it.

For assignments, I am as wild and out there as I possibly can be, because I can justify myself there. That’s what that space is for. My professors have said flat out that they expect me to learn to see the box I feel most comfortable in and then kick down the walls. They don’t want me to simply produce the same piece again and again. We all have styles, no doubt, but you can always weave your style into something new and different. And maybe, when I’m being wild and crazy for my assignments, I can figure out something about myself and my writing I’ve never thought of before. That’s an amazing feeling. But when I’m trying to publish? I’ve had to learn to tailor my writing to the audience I want or the publication I’m vying for. That’s just how it goes, when you’re starting out. Maybe one day I’ll be famous enough that the New York Times will ask me for a short story, any story I’m willing to give them. Until then, I have to follow their guidelines and show them there’s a reason to give me a chance.

That doesn’t mean I’ve changed who I am or what I’ve written. A no doesn’t mean no forever in the literary world. It just means another potential for a yes somewhere else down the line. Having a strong sense of who you are as a writer is hard to find, I get that. It took until I started my MFA program to really understand who I was. Other people find it outside of academia. You have to let yourself be open to the process, whether that’s by going to school or through just putting yourself out there and learning on your own.

But I’ve also had to put in more work than I ever thought I could, since I decided I wanted to “make it” as a writer. I’ve had to work pieces until I never wanted to see them again in my life. I’ve had to swallow my pride and ask for help. I had to be willing to hear no a hundred times before I heard my first yes. And then the process repeats.

A. Poythress is in their second year working towards an MFA in creative writing. They primarily write horror and fantasy stories about queer folk and women. You can find them shouting at the sun on Twitter at @ap_mess, or for updates you can go to their website, apoythress.com

A. Poythress's short story “bite” appeared in The Future Fire #45, May 2018.

No comments: