Considering the “M,” the “F” and the “A” of the M.F.A.

Teresa - Tamales

I’ve been thinking  about the individual letters of the M.F.A. and what they stand for – and yes, maybe I have too much time on my hands right now, but that’s the kind of thing that pops into my head at unpredictable moments. This particular thought – “What is mastery? What is an art, and what makes it a fine one?” – rose up as a result of some spontaneous cooking lessons I’ve been getting from Teresa, the woman who cleans the garden apartment where my husband and I are staying during our visit to Oaxaca, Mexico. There are lots of cooking schools here – Oaxaca is famous for its food – but I prefer hearing from Teresa, who cooks for her own family and who can earn a little extra money telling me about the family recipes and how to make them. [As I type, I can hear a parade outside - the school-children at the elementary school across the street are marching in celebration of Mexico's Independence Day tomorrow - they've been practicing all week - how to carry the big flag, how to wave the little individual flags, how to march in step, how to look serious and represent their school and country with honor....I hear a tuba and a trumpet....sorry, I have to run and catch that!....]

Okay, back to thoughts about the M and the F and the A. Imagine the scene: Teresa and I are in the middle of a discussion about tamales – this morning she brought a bag full of chiles, fruits, nuts and seeds, along with banana leaves for the tamales de mole negro (specialty of Oaxaca) and corn husks for the more common tamales de raja (green chile strips.) After at least an hour of browning bananas, peanuts, pecans, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, raisins, three types of dried chiles, cloves, garlic, salt and peppercorns, and after walking up to the local miller to get all of it ground up into a paste, Teresa now has chicken boiling for the filling, and she has me mixing the masa (also ground up from fresh nixtamal earlier that morning.) I am putting some real muscle into the mixing. Preparing masa is not like making hot-cake batter. It takes some oomph – like bread-making, I guess, though I’m no bread-maker, either.

When everything is ready, Teresa takes a few water-soaked corn husks and spreads the masa onto them with the back of a spoon. How easy she makes it look!  “Asi como yo lo hago. Ves? Es facil” (There, like I do it – you see? It’s easy.) With the banana leaves, the mole goes on, the shredded chicken goes on, and Teresa wraps them up. Then the masa and the rajas go onto the corn husks. She does it quickly – this side folded over, these tips down, tucked in, rolled all the way over, there. Nothing to it. Nothing spills out at the edges. The uncooked tamales hold together and look quite pretty, little spicy delights ready to be steamed.

When I try, of course, the corn husks won’t cooperate – it’s as if they know I’m not the boss. They curl up on me and fight me all the way. I add the filling as best I can – then I fold here, I fold there, everything spills out. I open it up and start again, and I feel like a pre-schooler trying to master finger-painting and making quite a mess of it. “Master” – yes, that’s how the word springs to mind. Looking at Teresa, who is watching me patiently, I see a master of the fine art of cooking. In her school, which is just my little kitchen in a vacation rental, I learn by doing. A good way to learn.

“Esta bien, no te preocupes,” she assures me. It’s fine – don’t you worry – “Cada vez, te van a salir mejor.” Each time you do it, they’ll come out better. “Poco poquito” – little by little. I don’t have to learn it all the first time.

Am I stretching to say that the same goes for writing as for tamales? Sure, I’m stretching a little. But the skill – some call it mastery – comes little by little, just as with all skills. Writing a good story is not unlike driving a nail into a shingle or setting tile for a back-splash or playing the ukulele or drawing a nude in a studio class. Or making tamales. You keep trying, you get better, you watch a master, you learn by doing.

Actually, it’s pretty easy to make the leap from tamale-making to writing novels (I love the sound of that – tamales to novels – as if they were foreign countries with a bridge from one to the other.) But what intrigues me is the way we assign the term “fine art” to certain things and not to others. That “F,” and that “A.” Dancing, drawing, sculpting, painting, film-making, design, creative writing, music composition – all programs at the graduate level, all granting “Master” degrees. The faculty says, “Here is what I’ve learned, try this.” They say, “Don’t worry, the skill comes. You learn by doing.” They even say “You have to put some muscle into it. It’s not easy.” Hopefully, they say, “The trick is to give it your own little flavor.”

“Fine” Arts. Does that mean “refined” arts? What about cooking – even cooking at the small kitchen level – is it not a “fine” art? And come to think of it, carpentry and plumbing and tile-setting and cleaning apartments? What makes those not so fine? If it’s about getting your hands dirty, think of a master ceramicist at the wheel.

I find myself wishing once again that the world were organized in a less vertical way, where some activities are at the top of the ladder, honored and respected, and others are dismissed. Those who have heard me rant about verticality vs. horizontality know this is a constant drum I beat. The art of the janitor seems equal to me to the art of the writer. Toolboxes, skills, learning by doing, mastery. Why do we honor activities that take leaps of imagination over those that take muscle? A poem can be musical, intellectual, filled with desire. Masa can be folded, pushed, pulled – a corn husk can be soaked just enough and not soaked too much. Flavor, artistry, desire, rhythm. Seems to me that a Picasso and a great apple pie share the “A” of art. And the “M” of mastery. To be fair, I suppose some CEO’s are masters of what they do – unfortunately, astronomical salaries usually make them look down that vertical ladder and believe themselves to be entitled to the privileges of being “at the top.” If our model changed, if we saw the world horizontally rather than vertically, the ladder could be put aside, and “status,” (that is, the level reached on that ladder) would need re-defining.

So. There I go again. As I age, it gets harder and harder not to end up at the political end of the parade, waving my own little flag – even when all I’m doing is looking at the alphabet and asking what a word means. “M” – mastery. We know it when we see it, whether it’s a tamal or a well-built arbor in the garden or a Matisse on the wall of a museum.  “Art” – I guess the same goes for art, since taste is personal – we know it and we feel it when we see it. Flavor, desire – it’s there somewhere. The greatest mystery, then, of an M.F.A. must be somewhere in that “F”  – the “F” of “Fine.” But I can’t figure it out. Am I’m being disingenuous? Maybe a little. And maybe the 10,000 hours people say it takes to become a master craftsman can’t be applied to the art of housekeeping and cooking. Only I’m betting it can. Next time you’re out and about, take a look around at the people passing by – there are a lot of Masters walking around out there. And there are a lot of Arts. Let’s just broaden what we call Fine.

[Okay, now there is the most horrible music coming from somewhere. I don't think that musician has mastered his craft yet. He's quite a few hours short of 10,000. Or, to put it another way, there's filling coming out of that tamal.]


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Energy management

How do you write?

It’s a question of endless fascination to me.  I’m insatiably curious about how other writers manage to get their stories on the page.

Some writers, it seems, hit on an ideal method early in their careers, and they feel no need to experiment. But I am restless, restless. I keep thinking there must be a better (easier?) way. So, over the years I have experimented with different writing methods across a variety of dimensions. I have tried outlining and not outlining. I have tried writing before breakfast, writing late at night and, on deadline, writing from dawn till way beyond dusk. I have tried blasting through a complete draft without going back; I have tried polishing each chapter as I wrote it; I have tried writing up to the point to where I got stuck and then feeling my way through from the beginning again. I have tried prewriting doodles in notebooks; I have tried keyboard stream-of-consciousness. I have tried writing out of chronological order; writing longhand; writing in coffee shops; writing with friends; writing in a rented space; and writing with a hat pulled down over my eyes (thank you Norma Fox Mazer).

You know, reading that last paragraph, I think I need to adjust my expectations. Am I thinking it ought to be easy? But why should it? Why can’t writing just be hard? And so what if it is?

In any case I am experimenting again—this time with energy management.  I’ve been reading that we’re more productive when, instead of working without a break for hours on end, we divide our time into discrete intervals, oscillating between spurts of intense work and frequent periods of rest.

This idea intrigued me, because I know that some of the time when I’m “working” I’m fuzzing out in front of the screen, or making excuses to do easier things rather than hard ones—looking up some research tidbit online, or making a new pot of coffee, or reading an article about writing, instead of actually, you know, writing. And I have noticed that I tend to do these things when I’m mentally fatigued.

What sold me on trying intervals with writing was what happened when I tried intervals in my morning workout on the stationary bike. I usually go for forty minutes at a certain steady resistance level. My goal is twelve miles, which I reach in most, but not all of my workout sessions. One morning I realized I was not on track to make my twelve miles. Just not gonna happen that morning.  So I thought I might as well try intervals: go really hard for thirty seconds, then go slower for four minutes, then hard for thirty seconds again. And repeat. Thirty seconds didn’t really feel like very long to work hard, but I had permission to dog it for the four minutes, so I did. When I had finished the workout, I was shocked to find that I had gone nearly fourteen miles. So those smaller intervals of greater intensity…really made a difference.

In my writing, I’m experimenting with focused intervals of one hour, forty-five minutes, and twenty-five minutes, with much shorter, timed, periods of brain rest in between. Tom Birdseye told me about the Pomodoro technique, where you go hard for twenty-five minute intervals with five-minute breaks. It’s actually more complicated, but that’s the gist of it. For me, sometimes “brain rest” means unloading the dishwasher or doing Pilates stretches. Sometimes it’s eating breakfast. Sometimes it’s crashing on the couch.

More productive?  The jury’s still out . I’m still tweaking, but so far I’m really liking working with a timer. I feel more energetic and focused while I’m writing. The resting part is nice, too.


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The Imagination Has Its Orders

When I moved to a new house a couple of years ago, I went through a stack of old AWP WRITER’S CHRONICLES and saved a few articles I thought I might like to read at some later date. Not long ago, I ran across one of these saved articles from the October/November 1998 issue and finally took the time to read the interview by Bonnie Riedinger called “The Imagination Has Its Orders: Cross-Genre Writing with Carol Muske and Molly Peacock.” What I discovered were some wonderful excerpts I’d like to share with you today from two poets who are also drawn to writing prose. When Ms. Riedinger asked each of them how they would define poetry and prose, Molly Peacock said:

“Prose operates with language that’s built from phrases into clauses into sentences. These sentences are built into paragraphs. Poetry operates with the sentence plus the line. You are writing to rhythm in prose, but it’s a rhythm that unfolds out over time. The rhythm that you write to in poetry uses the rhythm of the sentence, but it is underpinned by the rhythm of the line. The poem does not unfold or expand over time, it keeps returning and it is also self-contained.

“My poems—even my narrative poems—are usually about one emotional moment. Interestingly, in my prose I’m not doing so much musing about a moment as setting a scene, as in a play. Time in poetry has to do with the intensity of a moment, but prose has to do with the unfolding of events over time. Prose works with a kind of development, whereas the poem has to do with a kind of quickening.”

Carol Muske responded with:

“Fiction requires more carpentry work than poetry. You have to really build a house unless you’re writing very experimental fiction…. You have to lay a foundation. You have to put up joists, the wall beams, the floor, and so on, all the way to the roof. Unlike poetry, where you can occasionally leap in and out of windows and fly through the roof.”

Ms. Muske also said:

” …(T)he narrative focuses the mind differently. It is incremental, as the lyric is ecstatic. …(W)hat I mean by incremental is that it does not illuminate and then go dark the way the lyric does, it holds the note, then finds the next note. It sustains the vision, rather than isolating the visionary. The imaginations of the greatest poets, I think, are esemplastic—their minds are able to “shape” experience, disparate experience, into a unified whole. These “shapes” intrigue me because they leave distinctions like lyric and narrative behind—thus “shape-making” defies categorization. All poems are shapes, they are actions of the mind….”


Because I write in more than one genre myself, I can also confirm an assertion of Ms. Peacock later in the article. She compares crossing genres to knowing another language. For me, the study of poetry has broadened my vision of what words on the page, along with the white space surrounding them, can do, in fiction, poetry, and in memoir. My study of prose has given me better sentences from which to construct better lines in my poems. The things I don’t allow myself to do in prose, I won’t allow into my poems and vice versa. One of my favorite writing experiences—and experiments—was writing TRASH, a long narrative in poems, in which I was able to combine what I knew and could figure out about narrative, the character’s emotional arc, the poetic line, and negative space into a work that partook of and crossed boundaries between poetry and prose.

I’m so happy that in our VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults we have been able to keep the lines of communication open between genres and our students can move back and forth between prose (fiction and nonfiction) and poetry, as well as through the ages and stages of literature for young people from picture book through young adult. With our recent foray into Poetry Off the Page, with its exhibit of visual images and reading/performance, we’ve opened another door for our creative explorations to enter. While the world of the publishing business becomes ever more “brand” oriented, we as creative artists can continue to try out new things, things that will bring new life and energy to all our work, branded or not.




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Of Slow Shifts and School Supplies

Leda spoke eloquently of transitions in her recent post and I will speak of them crankily, specifically in relation to these final weeks of summer. I love this golden time, with the coneflowers blooming and the cicadas singing their final song. There should be wine coolers on the deck and corn grilling and the relishing of tomatoes ripe from the vine. Kids in bare feet, a few sighs, reminiscences. Instead … Staples sale signs … towers of bright notebooks at Target … the boxes of college stuff in the neighbor boy’s car. Deserted pools. Halloween candy!

Why rush too soon into Keats’s “season of mist and mellow fruitfulness”? Or, for that matter, into masks and candy corn?

Why leap when we might experience (and appreciate) the slow shift from one season to the next? When we might dwell for a while in an ending?

So, what does all this have to do with writing? (Ah, yes, I do need to do more than wring my summer-tan hands.)

Writing deadlines keep us busy. There are to-do lists to attend to, new, shiny projects to embrace. Right now, I am finishing up a creative project that I loved and labored over and learned a lot from. And I don’t want to rush through it. Nope. I want to give the whole thing its final moments, well, of summer, if you will. I want to offer it one last tangy wine cooler, a lingering good-bye, and thanks for being in my head and on my desk for lo these many months.

And now, I’m off to order my daughter’s high school textbooks. She’s taken a page from her mom, I guess, and puts that off till the last moment.

Wishing you a golden close to the summer.


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Ramblings about change and transition

John Tenniel

John Tenniel


Advance twice, set to partners…/Change lobsters, and retire in same order.  Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I have a very difficult time with transitions, with big and small changes, and of course I am not alone. In some areas, I’m an early adopter. It’s that curiosity thing I have spoken of so often. But life in general? No. Not so much. Change=worrisome.

What about transitions in writing? Early on, I remember being puzzled by details. To propel a character from bed to breakfast, for example, did I have to include getting out of bed, turning the doorknob, peeing, brushing teeth, traipsing downstairs, letting the dogs out, back in, out again, back in, out again, and so on? If not, would the reader understand what was going on? Of course the reader understands, and the accumulation of unnecessary details only leads to the cheese sandwich.*   “I woke up. For breakfast, had pancakes [a nod to Tobin Anderson, who just adores pancakes in books, ha], and went to work.”  [THIS IS JUST AN EXAMPLE. I WOULD NEVER BEGIN ANYTHING WITH WAKING UP AND HAVING BREAKFAST (Exception: Winnie Wakes Up). AND NEITHER WOULD YOU.]

I read, I thought, I listened, and I wrote. I learned to eliminate, cut, eviscerate; to tell only what propels the story. Studying how other writers moved characters about was ever so helpful. In fact, I soon wondered why I had puzzled so. Jump. Slow down when necessary. Crowding and leaping. Etc.

In real life, transitions are a wee bit more challenging. Change often=scary.

Life is its own journey, presupposes its own change and movement, and one tries to arrest them at one’s eternal peril. Laurens Van der Post, Venture to the Interior

Transition: I am no longer teaching at VCFA. This has been a particularly challenging change and not one I am navigating with great success. It is odd indeed to pop in for a visit and recognize none of the students. It is odd that they don’t recognize me. It is odd to have new faculty members I don’t really know. It is odd to become an outsider. I am lucky, however. I do get to pop in from time to time.

I do have my sources, however. They tell me the July residency was terrific.The Allies in Wonderland have graduated (and doesn’t the class name say it all? Aren’t we all allies in wonderland at VCFA and in the children’s book world?) Now they face the real world. When they return to campus, which almost all of them will at some point, they will see unfamiliar faces and may feel a bit lost. They’ll schedule group retreats and reunions; they’ll share writing online. Some will drift away. Some will be best friends forever.

Change everything, except your loves. Voltaire, Sur L’Usage de la Vie

My own VCFA class graduated in January, 2004. During the mini-residency, ten of us gathered once again on campus. All are writing. All still love each other. We ate, laughed, gossiped, and caught up. Marriages, divorces, publishing successes, children, grandchildren. Fortunately, no one is very ill and no one has died. For us, for now, the changes are mostly good ones, and for that I am very, very grateful.

I wish everybody a cheery end of summer, filled with good changes only.

In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways. Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance


All quotes from Bartlett’s.

*the cheese sandwich: Many VCFA students and alums will remember that this was from a talk by Alan Cumyn. If you bore your readers too much, they’ll go to make a cheese sandwich and likely not return.


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Too Old to Write YA?

We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.

(from Roger Angell’s piece in the New Yorker, “This old Man,” 2/17/14)

 If you haven’t read the essay from which the above excerpt is taken, don’t miss it. It’s a gloriously written, truly felt piece that perfectly describes what it’s like to walk among you with a sound mind in an aging body. Do yourself and your horizons a favor, and read the whole thing. Today, though, I’d like to narrow the focus a bit, and take a look at a particular sub-genre of “elders”—dare we call them “poplars?”—older authors who write fiction for young adults.

I don’t know how many of us there are, but to judge from my informal survey of colleagues and from the regular round of faces I see at state and national book festivals and conferences, I’d say a fair number of writers for young readers are already, or on the verge of, collecting social security. Which means they are also fair game for the naysayers who insist that, if your phone is dumb and your jeans sit at the waist, you have no business authoring books for anyone under 20. Beyond the fact that jeans and phones are irrelevant if you write historical fiction, how much sense does this dismissive prejudice make when it comes to novels set in the here and now? Or for that matter, stories that travel to tomorrow and beyond?

What compels any writer to write the book she does? I never sit down and tell myself, I’m going to write a young adult novel today. Or, Now for an adult short story, or, I feel like a picture book. I write what I need to write, go where I have to go; many of my most pressing personal emotional issues can be traced back to adolescence, so that’s often the age of my protagonists. If I don’t learn and grow from the journeys I take in my writing, neither will my readers. I never write down to young readers or “up” to adults; it’s simply that blooms of one kind seem to beg for a slender vase, flowers of another sort look better in a wide goblet. The arrangement in either case calls for skill and caring and yes, passion.


The young woman I was at thirteen was probably more idealistic, more romantic, more passionate than she has ever been since. The turmoil and heart-clutching theater of that period in my life keep calling me back. But at the age I’ve been blessed to reach now, I have lots of other periods calling me back, too: I’ve written short fiction that was published (and therefore labeled) as adult, YA, and middle grade; a picture book for young readers and a graphic novel for older ones; poetry; novels—books for all the juicy stages of me and you. So the logic of demanding that a YA author be young escapes me. I can appreciate, barely, the conviction that a teen author will have trouble portraying credible adult characters, whose experiences that young writer hasn’t yet lived. But to suggest that older writers have such heart fog they can’t reclaim their past, can’t revisit the young woman or man who helped make them who they are today? Not so much.

In fact, we mature types have what might be considered an edge over those still embroiled in the pangs and ecstatic highs of adolescence. We’ve been there, done that; and we have “crossed over” to the other side of that roiling time. By going back to it, we are, in effect, offering our young readers, not a helping hand, but company for the road. Someone to walk beside them, someone who can convincingly testify that they’re likely to get out alive. And maybe even wiser, happier for the trip.




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Facing up to my Shame



By Tim Wynne-Jones


Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate advising us that we ought to be ashamed of reading young adult novels caused some seismic activity on the faculty listserv, earlier this month, and we were all, I suppose, happy to see a well-wrought rejoinder by Alyssa Rosenberg in The Washington Post. I’ve just read Graham’s piece again and it’s actually harmless, well written and quite interesting. Do none of us ever question our reading? More to the point, do we not all care a great deal about how reading impacts on our lives and especially on our writing lives? Upon rereading the article in Slate, I went on to read pages and pages of commentary. I was encouraged by the fact that most people disagreed with Graham, but not quite so encouraged by the disposition of some of the commentators. But that’s freedom of speech, for you. The Internet introduces you to a world of opinions some of which you’d be happy never to have heard.

Many reviewers made the point that YA is not a genre. Amen. And many people made the point that reading at all is already a very good thing. Amen to that, too.

My only point here today is about holding sway over the books I read. I seldom acknowledge the injunction that there is a book, let alone a type of book, that I have to read. And yet I can suddenly and with great fervor want a book someone mentions that, for whatever reason, strikes me as hugely pertinent right at that moment.

In a good year I might read sixty books. I have my own little Oscar Night every New Year’s, where I decide upon the top five or six titles. Last year I see in my notes that Robert Cormier’s Fade stood cheek by jowl with How It All Began by Penelope Lively and Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lahane. The latter two are adult books, but the Lahane is a mystery and therefore, I suppose, only worthy of Ms. Grahams scorn, despite the excellence of his prose, since the mystery genre also gets side-swiped in her obloquy (or lowblowquy I’m tempted to call it). But is the Lively book literature by Graham’s standards? It’s such a cracking good story; can it possibly be good for me? Because there is, I think, in Graham’s rant, a whiff of prescription if not proscription. In 2012 my top picks included Robert Harris’ The Fear Index, a thriller in a way, but also a quite brilliant retelling of Frankenstein, which, come to think of it is also a thriller. Does that make the adult grade? Here’s my point: I fear that what Graham is talking about is “literature” and I’m not all that interested in “literature,” as such. I like Shakespeare and John Le Carre, Jane Austen and Barbara Kingsolver. I also happen to love The Fault in Our Stars and Wolf Hall, not to mention The House at Pooh Corner. I like Story. I don’t find enough Story in, say, Don DeLillo or Michael Ondaatje, but that’s just me. The words get in the way, to my mind. There’s a lot of shimmering surface dance. Is that what Graham thinks we should be reading?

I can’t read everything nor do I feel the slightest compunction to keep abreast of the times, let alone every brilliant new release in the field in which I write. What I read matters too much to me to be either cajoled or bludgeoned into reading anything but what I need to read for my own weird reasons and well being.

To me, youth is a renewable resource. I read YA and children’s books – Heavens! Let’s not forget picture books – because, at best, they replenish the sense of wonder, the vibrancy of what it is to be new to the shocks and joys of becoming fully human. I believe books for young people are about getting a grip and books intended for adults are about letting go. I’m quiet prepared to let go, bit by bit, and take my place in the line-up tottering towards the end of this mortal moving walkway. I don’t read young adult books out of nostalgia – God forbid I should be a teenager again! – but out of a profound and ongoing need to keep getting a grip. Keep holding fast.


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