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Decision-making: MFA, the novel, my life

March 27, 2011

I have been thrown into a bit of a tizzy by my advisor’s latest letter and I wanted to think something through. I’d love to hear from writers, VCFAers, and others faced with these sorts of decisions. (Okay, so who wouldn’t that include?! I need input from all of you!)

Here’s the deal: On Thursday afternoon I got my advisor’s response to the second packet (which consisted of 160 pp of the second part of my novel-in-progress). So far, she’s read all of the first part in a roughly second-draft form, and about ¾ of what I have written for the second part. She’s reading way more pages than she’s supposed to (way way way way way more) but this gives her the ability reply with global and specific feedback.

She raised some very interesting “large” concerns/questions about how the second part is structured and whether a  subplot is useful or not. When I first read her letter, and the day after, I felt extremely bummed out, like she didn’t like the book, or didn’t think I was good enough—all those voices yammering in my head. Yesterday, though, I began to think more practically.

Of course I want to think about her questions and seriously consider them. There are drawbacks to the way I’ve structured the second part, and I’d like to really consider how else I could structure it, or how I could revise it within the current structure to make it work better. But ultimately I need to make this sort of decision on my own.

What that process would look like for me: finishing Part II in the current structure.  Possibly finishing the whole novel. (Not sure about that.) Then taking a bit of a break, putting the manuscript away for a while before I read it with a somewhat distanced perspective. I find that with distance I can react like a reader, emotionally, intellectually, and that gives me a very good idea of what needs to change.

The problem with all this is that I currently see no way to do it within the framework of moving forward next semester with the MFA. When I applied to programs, I had it in my head that I would do a year, take time off, then do another year.  Last semester, that didn’t seem to make sense because I was able to deal with the feedback–which was much less global–, the decisions I needed to make, and continue to progress. At winter residency I was so energized by the lectures, my workshop, the advisor I got, all the interactions with other students, I decided to power through, do the program in two years, get done.

But now I’m changing my mind, and it’s ironically because of the generosity of my current advisor. Maybe I should take the time off? I don’t know what I’d work on next semester if I haven’t sorted out the questions raised this semester. And there is just no way for me to do what I need to do to get those decisions made (even if I added Sunday getting up at five, even if I took the two weeks I wanted for vacation between this semester and next)  and be ready for next semester with a new draft, a new direction or confidence in my old direction, if that’s what I decide is best.

What do I lose? Forward momentum. Connection to my wonderful classmates in my specific “class.” The intense immersion effect of doing two years consecutively. Being pushed by that sense of urgency and pressure. Connection to faculty.  Getting done sooner. And I’m not getting any younger…

What do I gain? Being able to deal with my novel in a way that makes the most sense and has the most integrity for me. Sorting out decisions without being too swayed by other people’s opinions. (One thing I’m convinced of is that I don’t want to write a novel by committee opinion.) Getting a more global perspective on what I’m learning. And honestly, getting a break from the pressure. I would be doing as much work on my novel anyway,  but taking a rest from reading four to six or more books a month plus the critical essays…

It’s not that I haven’t been keeping up, but I admit to breathing a huge sigh of relief when I think of just moving my novel forward, along with teaching, being with my kids, my husband, and all the rest, for a semester or a year.

This is a big turn-around for me, and I’d need to make the decision relatively quickly—we haven’t booked summer flights yet, but we should be doing that in the next few weeks.  I have already missed the school deadline so will be fined. I hate that, but I hate the idea more of moving forward without carefully examining what I have, what I want to have, what my vision is.

Your thoughts? What am I not seeing? What’s unsound in my logic?

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2011 12:30 pm

    NOOOOO! Of course, that is my first response, a purely selfish one. However, I am going to throw out another option. Stay in school and put your novel to the side. In the beginning I remember someone lecturing about getting the most out of the MFA program, the goal being learning your craft and practicing versus trying to work on a project. Maybe take a semester to focus on less global elements (not structure), and focus on crafting at the sentence level. That may not help with your short term goal of finishing your novel, but it would help with your long term goals as a writer (and with your 3rd novel.) Anyway, something to think about. Since you have already missed the deadline, I would suggest giving it a few weeks before you make the decision. Just last week, after getting my feedback I decided I had nothing to write about and would have nothing to write about ever again. But, here I am, today, typing this long-ass letter on the comment box on your blog. That’s gotta be something…

  2. March 27, 2011 12:51 pm

    Ultimately, the decision is yours… many of us will be taking time off so you’d end up graduating with a bunch of “classmates” anyway, but I like Sarah would love to see you this summer. The packet schedule is amazing for forcing us to write, but for a bigger project which requires those periods of reflection and absorption the answer may be time off…
    Wish I could offer you more wisdom, but whatever choice you make will be the right one, I’m sure. Good luck.

  3. Michelle Webster-Hein permalink
    March 27, 2011 1:46 pm

    This is a difficult decision to be sure. And it seems, at least for me, that clarity regarding revision only comes with time. Sarah Braud’s suggestion sounds like a viable possibility. Could you hone other elements of your craft while your subconscious mulls over your novel? But yes, of course, the decision you are ultimately led to make will be the right one. Also, might your advisor have any helpful feedback to this question? Wishing you wisdom!

    • March 27, 2011 1:52 pm

      Thanks for all your feedback. The thing I’m most encouraged by, really, is that I won’t be losing all my wonderful new writer friends! I would really miss residency this summer (and Dan Chaon, the visiting fiction writer, whom I would love to work with), but we couldn’t afford for me to go and then not do the semester. I would love Sarah B’s idea, but you always have to have the context to write those sentences. I mean, I suppose I could look at individual chapters much like I did in my first semester, but that feels less satisfying… I don’t know!!!

    • March 27, 2011 1:53 pm

      Oh, and yes, I have an email in to my advisor–absolutely seems like she’ll have the big picture in a way I don’t!

  4. March 27, 2011 3:07 pm

    This is a very personal question and I don’t think there is a right answer. I just want to chime in about your idea of the specific “class.” I took 2 1/2 years off (a lot!) so I knew absolutely nobody when I returned for my second year. I’ve become part of a new class. But what has been wonderful is realizing that this is one community. I am part of the VCFA community, and I think having the opportunity to have been part of two very different but equally amazing and dynamic classes taught me that.

    I’ve also been able to return to my novel in a way I just don’t think would have been possible without the time off. This is truly a different book I’m writing. But not everyone needs that. You should *definitely* talk to your advisor about this. I had your advisor last semester and am pretty much in love with her. I’m sure she’ll have amazing insight.

    I would miss seeing you at the summer residency, but we are all here commenting on your blog and Facebook. We’ll still be connected! Good luck, and let us know what you decide.

    • March 27, 2011 3:18 pm

      I’m so glad you chimed in, since you’re the only person I know with experience in this time off. I do love the idea of this wider community but it also makes me sad to think of the people I won’t see this summer who are graduating (like you–boohoo).

      I wrote my advisor to ask her and I’m waiting with bated breath for her response.

      How is your novel coming?

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