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MattElz
Matt Elzweig
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Jan 23, 2005, 8:31 AM

Post #1 of 13 (2333 views)
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Novels Can't Post

Anyone taken a first draft novel manuscript through an MFA program? What was your experience like? What programs are best suited to this end?


wiswriter
Bob S.
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Jan 23, 2005, 11:00 AM

Post #2 of 13 (2329 views)
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Re: [MattElz] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

Matt - I'm about to attempt this in the low-residency program at Bennington. It's one reason I chose to go low-res. Writing a novel is hard in any MFA program, but especially in residential programs, because residential programs are based around workshops and it's just very difficult to workshop a novel. You can bring an excerpt to a workshop, but be prepared to spend half your time on background and answering questions that are dealt with in other parts of the work.

What you need is a faculty mentor who will see you all the way through - and, if you're lucky, a couple of fellow students who become trusted readers over the course of the project. What you want to avoid is dumping scores of pages on new readers once the project is well underway.

Ask the programs how novel-friendly they are. At Bennington, certain faculty members are more amenable to novels than others. But the good thing is that you're working with one writer for six months at a time. Most of the fiction faculty at Bennington will accept even a hundred or more pages of your novel as the first "packet" of the term and read it through to acquaint themselves. Then it's chapter by chapter from there. Bennington will also allow you to combine stories and a novel excerpt in your thesis, so you can work on both shorter and longer pieces while you're in the program without worrying about falling behind. But the faculty will also discourage you strongly from attempting a novel if they don't feel you're ready.


MattElz
Matt Elzweig
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Jan 23, 2005, 11:14 AM

Post #3 of 13 (2326 views)
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Re: [wiswriter] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

Sounds interesting. I mean, the more I hear about the low-residency thing on this forum. Guess I worry that I wouldn't be as disciplined without a full-time place to go. But - I'm curious - what do most or many of the other low-residency students do (for a living) since whatever it is requires them to be off-site for the majority of the program?

Since the majority of programs focus on short stories and poetry, is there a point for novelists to undertake the MFA degree? Is there a reason other than practical considerations like the ones you mentioned that the MFA world seems more accomodating for these other mediums?


pongo
Buy this book!

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Jan 23, 2005, 11:31 AM

Post #4 of 13 (2322 views)
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Re: [MattElz] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

I did a novel at Goddard, and a lot of the people I knew there were working on novels. It didn't seem to be a problem for anyone. You do have to be self-motivated to get through a low-res program, but you have to be pretty self-motivated to write a novel, for that matter.

I had enough money saved up to work on the MFA full-time for the first year. For the second year I worked for Manpower (driving test cars for Texaco) and Gannett (staff writer on the local daily). Most people just keep their regular jobs -- teachers, telemarketers, insurance executives, nurses, editors, and so on.

But is there a point for a novelist to take an MFA? All the same arguments that apply to anyone getting the degree apply to novelists. Why would it be any different?

dmh


The Review Mirror, available at www.unsolicitedpress.com

Difficult Listening, Sundays from ten to noon (Central time), at http://www.radiofreenashville.org/.

http://home.comcast.net/~david.m.harris/site/


MattElz
Matt Elzweig
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Jan 23, 2005, 11:39 AM

Post #5 of 13 (2321 views)
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Re: [pongo] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

Pongo,

You've probably answered this a hundred times on PW so forgive me - but what things did you get out of doing the MFA?

Thanks.

Also, just curious are you one of the many jaded ex-journalists? Doesn't excite me like writing fiction, but I mean you are writing everyday. Just figure I'd be burned out and not want to write fiction in my spare time.


pongo
Buy this book!

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Jan 23, 2005, 11:45 AM

Post #6 of 13 (2318 views)
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Re: [MattElz] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

The MFA changed my life and my writing. I went in as a fairly mechanical, technical (in the sense that I depended on technique, although I've also done some technical writing) writer, and I came out with at least a chance of becoming an artist.

But I was never a journalist. I was just a staff writer on the paper; I did listings of local events and, every other week, a human interest story. It was a job. Yes, it did involve writing every day (every day I worked, anyway; it was a part-time job), and it didn't really interfere with work on my novel because the work was so different. Editing novels (a previous job) made writing them very difficult.

dmh


The Review Mirror, available at www.unsolicitedpress.com

Difficult Listening, Sundays from ten to noon (Central time), at http://www.radiofreenashville.org/.

http://home.comcast.net/~david.m.harris/site/


MattElz
Matt Elzweig
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Jan 23, 2005, 12:15 PM

Post #7 of 13 (2315 views)
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Re: [pongo] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

Pongo,

From your blog I see you're doing the freshman comp thing. How are you balancing freshman comp/writing/reading/having a life outside literature?

Did the MFA significantly help you get the job? Are you already published? How do you like teaching freshman comp?


equinoctial
Megan Savage

Jan 23, 2005, 2:29 PM

Post #8 of 13 (2299 views)
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Re: [MattElz] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm in my first year at Indiana University, and though I didn't enter intending to start a novel, one of the craft classes offered this semester was on the novel - theory and composition. As it turned out, most of the first years are taking the class, so I think there will be a pool of us who may end up nursing our novels along for the rest of our time here. As it is, I know at least two third years who are working on novels for their theses - I have a feeling that's how it's normally done: stories during the 2 years of workshop, and if the novel is going to be written, it happens during the thesis year when a one-on-one relationship with a thesis director is available to you. That said, I'm looking forward to having a few students see my novel through the developing phases, and hopefully we will be able to continue as each others' readers even after the class has ended. I think that may be the best way to go - try to find one or two others interested in or working on novels, and work with each other outside of workshop.


pongo
Buy this book!

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Jan 23, 2005, 3:11 PM

Post #9 of 13 (2294 views)
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Re: [MattElz] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

Well, the blog shows how much reading I manage to do while teaching. I have to make time for it, but I do. And I have to admit that I find it very difficult to write and teach at the same time, mostly because I'm writing so much text as commentary on my students' papers. (In the course of a year, I write the equivalent of a writing textbook.) But I love teaching, and I do get a lot out of it (especially now that I have a full-time job). And I do manage to have a life, although my wife wishes she could see more of me during the term.

The MFA made the job possible for me. You can't teach in a university with just a BA unless you've got some spectacular non-traditional credentials, such as publications. (See Samuel R. Delany of Temple U.) In most places it's considered a terminal degree, but schools that are looking at accreditation issues will still prefer PhD's.

Yes, I'm published. Long list, including a novel, some short stories, some poetry, a chapbook of essays, a couple of films, and so on.

dmh


The Review Mirror, available at www.unsolicitedpress.com

Difficult Listening, Sundays from ten to noon (Central time), at http://www.radiofreenashville.org/.

http://home.comcast.net/~david.m.harris/site/


rutha


Jan 23, 2005, 5:53 PM

Post #10 of 13 (2287 views)
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Re: [MattElz] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

MattElz -- I'm very interested in your questions so thought I'd respond. In my on campus MFA program most students were working on short stories -- not that they weren't capable of writing novels or didn't want to, but I do think that writing a lot of short stories is great training for writing a novel (at least that's my experience, having written quite a few stories and now tackling a novel), though there are writers that I admire greatly who never wrote novels (or not many) and their work inspires more than a lot of novels I've read (Munro, KA Porter, Carver, Chekhov, etc.). So writing great short stories is a very admirable and difficult thing to do unto itself. If nothing else, once you've written a lot of stories and start on a novel, you see pretty clearly the difference (in other words, a novel isn't just a really long short story -- well, in some ways it is, but let's not get into that for now!), and what it takes to write a novel. I think that a low res format would work extremely well for a student working on a novel -- there's lots of time for getting careful, thoughtful feedback, unlike a residential program where you're meeting once a week, and in each class there's a certain amount of work the teacher needs to get through. My sense was, in my res program, the novelists who started out with novels were a little bit frustrated by that, and you really do need one or two people who are going to read the whole thing from beginning to end and know the thread.

As for teaching/writing -- I'm also a full-time writer/writing teacher. It's a challenge to keep time for yourself, I've found, though you can't beat the month-long break in between semesters, and summers -- that's when I got most if not all of my own work done.

Hope this sheds some light...


MattElz
Matt Elzweig
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Jan 23, 2005, 9:45 PM

Post #11 of 13 (2271 views)
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Re: [rutha] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks Rutha. That was pretty informative. I am not opposed to working on short stories, and I see their utility - both in preparing you to write a better novel later on, and as an end unto themselves. I do both. (I'm unpublished and am only about 42,000 wds into my first novel).

The reason I am asking all these questions is because I'm in Tokyo teaching ESL and I've set a goal for myself: I don't want to return to the States until I've finished the first draft. So, I've been trying to decide if and when I finish this thing, should I take it through an MFA program, what should I do next in terms of day jobs, etc, etc ....

Anyway, everyone on here has been extremely helpful (Pongo, Megan, Rutha, Alex Romani)


MattElz
Matt Elzweig
e-mail user

Jan 23, 2005, 11:39 PM

Post #12 of 13 (2262 views)
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Re: [equinoctial] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

By the way, Megan -- I checked out the IU program site. It looks like a great program, and lots of the students seem to be funded. How do you like it so far? How competitive is it to get in? And once you're in how competitive is the environment? (I'd prefer to be somewhere that encourages camraderie).

Matt


equinoctial
Megan Savage

Jan 24, 2005, 12:17 PM

Post #13 of 13 (2246 views)
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Re: [MattElz] Novels [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm really enjoying my time here so far. It has its ups and downs, like anywhere, but I'm still riding the wave of being so grateful that this is what I get to do with my life right now, that it all feels like a blessing. Some perks: everone is fully funded through an associate instructorship. You get to teach creative writing your first year, and in my second semeser I already have my own class (although this is relatively rare). In your second year you teach composition, and in your third year, some combination of the two. There is great cameraderie here. Workshops are critical, but I wouldn't say competetive, though people are definitely very invested in their work. The program is diverse in terms of writing styles, which I think does the program a service both in terms of not producing clones and in terms of cutting some of the competitive edge. I also really appreciate being at a school that has a fabulous (highly ranked, if you care about that sort of thing) English department. I satisfy my inner lit-crit nerd by taking fascinating courses with some great profs. And you get to work on the Indiana Review.

As for how competitive to get in - there are 12 admitted each year (6 fiction, 6 poetry), and I think there were a little over 300 applications last year.

If you want to know more, feel free to email offline.
Megan

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