Life after the MFA

This is the time of year, nearing graduation, when a number of newly minted MFAs find themselves wondering what their futures hold. They’ve put in their time. They’ve written and studied and taught. They’ve practiced their craft. Many have even published in a few journals. On the whole, they’re writing better than they did when they entered their programs, full of optimism and allowing themselves to dream all good things.

But now what?

The Essay inside the Essay

There’s a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis whose glass panels catch the reflection of a smaller skyscraper opposite it. To look upon the taller skyscraper makes one believe that the smaller one is rising up inside it.

This is how an essay can work. One structure can contain another. The first gives us an organizing principle; it also provides a point of focus, the thing upon which we keep our eyes.

But so much is going on outside our field of vision. A second structure is rising up, one that will eventually demand our attention. We don’t know what that second structure is, nor should we, when we’re writing our first drafts. We want it to surprise us, so it can also surprise the reader.

Daydreaming Your Memoir

I saw a photograph once, but now it only exists in my memory. It was an 8 x 10 glossy of the congregation of the Berryville Church of Christ, the church I attended with my mother when I was a small child on our family farm. The church itself was a one-room affair with a brick chimney and white-washed clapboards. It sat a little ways south of Berryville proper, which is to say it was just a bit south of the Berryville General Store. My grandparents at one time managed that store. They lived cattycornered from it in a modest frame house. In March, 1956, my grandfather came home from church on a Sunday evening, had a heart attack, and died. I was five months old, and I would know him only through the things he left behind, the things I found later when I spent my pre-school days in my grandmother’s care—the cigarette lighters and pipe cleaners; the glass paperweights and the Bicycle playing cards; the Zane Grey novels and the concrete wishing well he built in the yard.

The Places We Know: What Richard Ford Taught Me

It took me a good while as a writer to trust the world I knew best—that world of small farms and towns and the men and women who worked hard at jobs that didn’t pay them nearly enough. Sometimes those people lived too large for their own good. Sometimes they made poor choices and suffered the consequences. They cut each other with knives, they burned down buildings just for the thrill of it, they left families to run off with someone not their wife or husband, they ended up in prison, they took a deal from a judge and went to the army to avoid ending up in prison, they lived lonely lives of regret because once upon a time they’d had a chance to really be somebody and then, like the years, that chance just went away. Despite whatever wrong turns they took or lives they wished for, they often found joy in the most simple things: a few hands of Pitch around a kitchen table, an ice cream social at the Methodist Church, a tenderloin sandwich carried home in a paper bag from Bea’s Cafe.

Ten Things Writers Can Do This Summer

Spring has me thinking of summer—ah, glorious summer—a time that can seem like a call for renewal and fresh starts for the writer. Here are some things we can all do to get the most from that period of rejuvenation.

1.  Get out of our comfort zones. Do something we never thought we’d do. Skydiving? Why not? Or something less dramatic. A trip to somewhere we’ve always wanted to go, a gift we’ve always wanted to make, an instrument we’ve always wanted to play, a sport we’ve always wanted to try. Whatever our choice, we can do something to expand our realm of experience.

Tips for Novelists

Spring is creeping in, and isn’t it about time? Here in the heartland, we earn our springs. Temperatures above fifty, the sight of green shoots coming up in flowerbeds, birdsong at dawn—it’s enough to give us hope.

It takes a world of optimism to write a novel. We have to convince ourselves that such a thing is possible. So here in early spring, are some things I’ve learned.

Straight Talk about MFA Programs

It’s recruitment season for MFA programs, and I’m thinking of all the folks who’ve committed, or soon will, to this degree despite the fact that a 2013 Poets & Writers index says that full-time teaching positions at the university level are available, on average, for well less than one percent of creative writing program graduates.

In April at the annual Associated Writing Programs conference, I’ll be part of a roundtable discussion (with Sonja Livingston, Carter Sickels, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Doug Van Gundy) called “Straight Talk: What the MFA Promises and What It Delivers.” So here’s some straight talk about both.

Keep Facing the Blank Page

These late winter mornings, I hear birdsong. I hear birdsong even though the temperatures have been in the single digits or below zero, even though a new snow storm sweeps through every few days. The birds don’t know how to doubt. The turning of the earth tells them that spring is closer each day.

It takes a similar faith to be a writer. We come to the page with an idea of what we’ll put there. We hold faith that something of value will emerge. We’re believers. Every one of us who works with words believes in the value of that work. We come back to the blank page time and time again because we’re convinced that this time we’ll get it right. This time we’ll succeed. This time the words on the page will do what we intend them to do.

Oh, Those Pesky Facts: What’s a Memoir Writer to Do?

Let’s admit it: Anyone who writes memoir does a song and dance with the facts. Even if we’re determined to be completely faithful and only include the verifiable when it comes to event, chronology, and dialogue, our memories are fallible and sometimes they’re the only thing we can rely on to say “This is the truth.”

To me, this conversation about what to do with the facts starts to become tiresome, but also necessary. When it comes to writing memoir, what are we willing to do with the facts of our lives? In addition, what should we not allow ourselves to do?

Memoir and the Work of Resurrection

I have a piece of wood, nearly six-feet in length, taken from the debris of a farmhouse fallen in on itself. The farmhouse that belonged to my family, the house in which my mother first read to me, the house where I listened to my father and my uncles swap stories, the house where I would eventually spend long summer days reading books inherited from my grandfather, the house where my family suffered the accident that cost my father both of his hands, the house that he filled with his rage.