The Secret Life of a YA Writer in a Traditional MFA Program

This month at Ploughshares, I’m sharing a little of my experience at a traditional MFA program and ending up a YA writer.

I know other YA writers who went through traditional MFA programs and weren’t as happy with their experiences, but I appreciated having the time to focus on craft and technique. And I think it helped that my program was a little more flexible than most–I got to take classes outside of my genre, and also crossed over a lot with the publishing program.

Obviously you don’t need to get an MFA to be a writer or learn/practice craft. There are a million different ways to be a writer and you have to find what works for you.

Click through to read the full post, and enjoy the Lost gif.

Links Galore

Lots of good links to start the week:

College Essay Questions and What Teens Know

When I was applying to colleges, one school’s essay about a specific choice I’d made that had significantly impacted my life or the life of someone else. My response boiled down to: “I’m 17. What choices have I made of any real significance? I can’t even choose what to write about for a college admissions essay–this is the only essay option given. I still hope my biggest choices and changes are yet to come.” So I was pretty interested in this article at the Atlantic, which questions if college application essays expect too much from students:

“There are innumerable sites that offer advice for college applicants, and almost all of them involve admissions experts pleading with students to “be genuine.” But I don’t blame a 17-year-old girl for thinking her authentic answer to “What makes you happy?” won’t get her into college. My honest response—which probably would have involved Ben and Jerry’s and a new episode of Gossip Girl—certainly would not have gotten me into school. It’s not reasonable to tell a 17-year-old kid to “Be yourself!” while asking him to evaluate the meaning of knowledge in the 21st century or to discuss philosophical theories.”

As a college applicant, I felt largely the same. It was hard to be genuine when you knew there was also a right answer–one that doesn’t necessarily involve ice cream and television.

But reading this now, as a YA writer, I want to give teens more credit than that. Maybe it’s not fair to expect them to have the answers of the universe, but they’re not solely made happy by ice cream and Gossip Girl. They know the joy of riding in the car with friends with the windows rolled down; the pain of not really being friends with anyone in your senior class; the very real anxieties and doubts about the future. Teens are smart and thoughtful and do have real, emotional experiences. Why shouldn’t we expect them to think deep thoughts?

I think there’s a middle ground–questions that don’t necessitate major life experiences but still allow teens to think beyond the everyday. Questions that let them be creative and thoughtful about their own lives, even if that means being really mundane. Questions that don’t have a “right” answer.

Do you think college admissions essays are unfair or valid for the average teen?

Be an English Major

Fellow Candlewick YA writer and one of my favorite 2014 debut authors, Sarah Combs, recently sent me this article about why English majors matter. Needless to say, my heart swelled with bookish pride. For example:

“The English major is, first of all, a reader. She’s got a book pup-tented in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late into the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be John Milton, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe? What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?

English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought.”

The whole article is fantastic. Edmundson defends not only the act of reading, as above, but also the act of writing and how deft handling of language allows us to “not merely to represent the world but to interpret it.” Isn’t every other major or career made better by the ability to represent and interpret the world and its ideas? Definitely click through to read the rest.

I’m a former English major and, even though people often make jokes about how unemployable we are and how useless it is to “sit around and read,” I can think of nothing more valuable than understanding language and being sensitive to the human experience. My English major certainly helped me get jobs (with health benefits!) and has made me a more thoughtful person overall.

Also, I gave a little cheer when I saw that the article writer was, in fact, Mark Edmundson, professor at the University of Virginia, my beloved alma mater. (Woohoo, English department!)

Thanks again to Sarah for sharing such an inspiring article! (And guys, you are totally going to want to read her book, Breakfast Served Anytime when it comes out next spring.)

No One Can Tell You When You’re “Ready” to Write

One of the ongoing debates in the creative writing world surrounds creative writing programs vs. real-life experience. Can you learn writing by being in a classroom, or do you need to go live and have lots of varied experiences? This article from the Atlantic emphasizes the importance of having life experiences so that when you sit down to write, your stories are filled with meaningful characters and adventures. Reiner says:

“But what [creative writing programs] can’t do is provide writers with real-world experience and the perspective to make sense of it, without which there is no storytelling, there is no “editor I’m going to work with” giving the green light. Creative writing programs can teach you how to write, but they can’t teach you what to write. No instructor or Zellowship can transform you into a storyteller without experience strutting your ambition.”

I agree. While creative writing programs and workshops can be a great place to examine craft, they’re not going to give you ideas.

But.

I don’t necessarily think people with more life experience write better stories. There are lots of people who have had compelling life experiences that would make amazing stories, but don’t have the skills to bring those stories alive in a complex, subtle way on the page. And there are people who have lived quiet, “ordinary” lives that see deeply into the human experience and have great perspective on their experiences. Some people have a knack for attuning themselves to character details and making emotional connections. These people can write at 16 and 35 and 52 and 97. They can certainly hone their skills over time, but I don’t think they necessarily need to wait for some magical length of time before they’re able to write stories.

Examples: Emily Dickinson wrote stunning poetry while being largely a recluse. I don’t think she had a lot of “life experience.” And Keats got all his writing in before he died at 25.

Basically, writing is different for everyone. There’s no age at which you’re “ready” to write amazing stories or experiences that will guarantee to make you a better writer. I’m a great believer in practice, not time or experience, making people better writers. Focus on your craft, where that’s in a formal workshop or at your own desk. No matter where you are, notice details and listen to people. Open yourself up to everyday experiences and making emotional connections. If you’re someone who already thinks of story ideas, those will come to you no matter where you are or how old you are.

Days of Remembrance and Why Stories Matter

This week is the national Days of Remembrance, which commemorates Holocaust victims and survivors. I remember learning about the Holocaust in school, primarily with two main books. The first was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, which my class read in third or fourth grade. I knew about WWII in general, but this was the first time I remembered hearing about the significant threat to Jewish people during that time. The book provided a safe way to learn about a very scary part of history; the threat to Ellen’s family is very real but Lowry is careful not to go into too much detail about what could have faced the Rosens if they’d been caught.

Night by Elie Wiesel was another significant book in my learning about the Holocaust. By the time I read it, I was in eighth grade and knew millions of innocent people had been tortured and killed. I didn’t expect Night to affect me so, but I read it in one evening and spent the entire time crying. For me, it was an opportunity to understand the Holocaust in a very personal way. Somehow it’s easy to gloss over statistics about how many people died; it’s far harder to ignore real stories about the horrors that individual people experienced.

Which is why the Days of Remembrance and honoring all the specific victims and survivors are essential. We need to hear their stories and remember that these were/are specific people with specific lives. They were mothers and singers and readers and kids who liked silly jokes and lawyers and on and on. All of their stories are valuable and need to be shared.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has resources for taking part in the Days of Remembrance, including a webcast of the national ceremony on Thursday, April 11 at 11:00am. In case you can’t take part in an organized event, you can also share the stories of victims and listen to the stories of survivors, as documented on the museum website. Make sure their voices are heard.

Links Galore

Apparently I’ve been hoarding lots of great links. Anything to make it through a Wednesday!

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Links Galore

Some links to help start the week off right: