Jun 23

School Can Help You Write a Good Novel

There's a myth that writing a novel is very easy. In Peanuts we saw a dog writing a genre novel. Erase that idea; you are now in the Sanity Bubble. It's novelists, the long-distance runners, who most need education in the craft and the business.

Sep 04

Earning an M.F.A. Online

Growth in online education is healthy for creative writers. When I say I teach in Lindenwood University's online Master of Fine Arts in Writing program (just named by Wordfocus.com as one of the top ten in the nation), I am often asked:

How do you teach online? We have a dedicated course site open only to enrolled students, and the syllabus, assignments, and workshop discussions are posted there.

Do you ever meet with your students in person? No. But the consolation is that online courses attract students from everywhere: Virginia, Mississippi, California. This wakes up the locals who write "Billikens" and "Lambert" expecting all readers to know that those are the St. Louis University sports teams and the St. Louis airport's name.

How does an online workshop work? Students post the current drafts of their projects, and the instructor and all other students post constructive comments and discuss those too. I also personally email each student to discuss issues specific to his or her work.

What do you teach? Advanced Creative Nonfiction, Personal Essay and Memoir, and Poetry Workshop. Other faculty teach fiction writing, prose poetry, narrative journalism, and more.

How good is online instruction? For creative writing, online instruction is excellent, because we communicate only in writing. We have textbooks and get into deep group discussions via a discussion board. You will be told honestly what's good about your writing and how you can improve. We keep it strictly polite and constructive but you will be annoyed by others' suggestions anyway, because part of becoming a professional writer is learning to accept that your writing can always be improved and others will and should always have suggestions for you. You will learn to welcome criticism.

Who should enroll? You can apply only if you have a bachelor's degree. The MFA is a graduate program. Absolute beginners will find earning the M.F.A. much harder than they think it is. You have to read a lot. We established "foundation courses" because students wanted to enroll to write great short stories or poems or screenplays before they had actually read any.

How good is an online M.F.A.?Lindenwood's online M.F.A. program is strictly monitored by an accrediting agency, our faculty is tops, and online courses require serious personal discipline; always good training for writers. You have to write a book to graduate. Because an online class is open 24/7, students don't have to excuse themselves because their niece's birthday party is on a class night. That said, an M.F.A. degree does not guarantee of a job or publication or even that your writing is good. It'll be much better, but you might need several more years of practice before you're a complete professional. You need also persistence and talent, which universities can't give you. Most M.F.A. in writing graduates do not become professional creative writers. But some do!

Oct 10

Words I Mispronounced

Words I mispronounced and the ages at which my pronunciation was corrected:

mail (8)
guru (12)
Datsun (14)
Karmann Ghia (16)
writhe (17)
fuschia (18)
Job (as in "Book of") (21)
Cambridge (22) (How was I supposed to know it was a long "a"?!)
persona (24)
patina (25)
Peugeot (26)
Anais (27) (AN-na-eez)
Yeats (29)
Proust (29)
Quattrocento (30)
vermouth (31)
W.E.B. Du Bois (32) (Du Boyce)
wastrel (40)
decollete (42) (deck-o-TAY?!?)
Simone Weil (45) ("Vay")
esophageal (50) (soft "g")
decedent (52) (deh-CEE-dent)
bas-relief (55) (That bass I caught felt great relief when I released it!)

Jun 27

After Walter Bargen's Critique

Walter Bargen’s critique of a poem I brought to the St. Louis Poetry Center Workshop shifted my philosophy of revision. He said, You use too many words. Get it going with the first line. Make sure that in every line something happens. Shorten your sentences. Cut every word and phrase not absolutely needed. With these in mind I revised and think I improved the poem. Its first two stanzas will illustrate. See what you think:


Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries and coins
at each of the seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

each begetting another, life-sized, more sensual:
a stone tent for the slumbering plaster disciples;
for the satiny skins of the plaster Pietá
a stone canopy inlaid with bottle glass and scallop shells;


Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries, coins.
The seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

shelter strangely sensual scenes.
Plaster disciples slumber
beneath a canopy of masonry
chased with beach glass and scallop shells,

Jun 27

Advice to a Co-Worker Leaving Her Job to Enter an MFA Program

  • Get to know everyone.
  • Attend every literary event that you can.
  • Keep a journal.
  • When you’re suffering, telephone (don’t E-mail) a fellow student.
  • Your mistakes are okay.
  • Understand that some of your fellow students applied to the MFA program and didn’t get in, so they are getting a regular M.A., and boy are they jealous of you.
  • If you teach freshman composition, know that some of your students cannot be saved.
  • Sleep on it before submitting it to workshop.
  • Love affairs that start in the first weeks of grad school will end badly.
  • Get a bicycle.
  • Make yourself go to your writing professor’s office during office hours, just to chat.
  • If you need money, get a part-time job no matter what your contract with the college says.
  • Don't bug famous writers to help you, because they won't.
  • It's not an illusion: Male and female writers are not treated the same.
  • You'll get discouraged sometimes, but don’t let anybody stop you.
May 20

How to Destroy a Writers' Conference

Take a fully-functioning annual writers' conference that's been successful for ten years or so, a conference loved by its participants, but difficult and draining work for its organizing committee and its instructors, who nevertheless realize, when it's all over, that they've created something wondrous and given some of the participants the greatest moments of their lives. Then destroy it, bit by bit. Here's how.

1. Decide it has to turn a bigger profit.
2. Cut the director's salary in half.
3. Refuse to pay reasonable fees for "name" writers as instructors and speakers, and instead hire graduate students, unknowns or personal friends.
4. Exploit upper-class high-schoolers' career-minded parents and start a youth writing workshop that runs simultaneously, and then mix the youth in with the adults.
5. Use as a logo a typewriter image or a quill pen image obtained from a free clipart site.
6. Cut the publicity and mailing budget and rely on Facebook and Twitter to drum up interest.
7. Book and announce the workshop instructors at the last possible minute.
8. Accept all applicants, including those who can't write a plain English sentence.
9. Raise the price each year.
10. Stop offering a scholarship for a person who can't afford the price.
11. Don't bother sending acceptance confirmation or welcome letters, or orientation kits.
12. Instead of offering bagels in the morning, get a committee member's mom to contribute a dry little quickbread. Cut it into very thin slices so there are enough slices to go around.
13. Hold the workshops and events in cheaper, shabbier buildings and rooms.
14. Cease hiring the instructor who is a popular, proven success, whose workshops fill instantly; get someone more hip.
15. Because the fiction and poetry workshops aren't filling, combine them into a fiction-and-poetry workshop.

(#15, friends, is the death blow, showing a total misunderstanding of writers, the writing process, and workshops.)
Mar 24

I Want to Be Another Poet

I'd like to be another kind of poet, writing poems that really get taken seriously. A few years back I tried this. Only one of those poems was completed. It was somber, serious, international in scope (the subject was the great Korean poet, Ko Un. I was not at all making up what I felt when I saw him read: respect and awe). I described the sweaty-warm spring day. The poem was also highly referential (if you couldn't deduce that the poem was about Ko Un you wouldn't get it), sharply observed (he wore a wrinkled dress shirt too big for him), and ultimately my poem was really about the power of poetry. Top that!! I titled it "How to Change Everything" and asked a poet friend for an opinion.

"What were you trying to say here? Makes no sense," he complained. I said, "But this, and this..." He wasn't buying. I saw that I was not going to become an author of serious, ominous poems about important international and social currents -- at least not by deliberately trying.

Not long ago tried a longer, solemn poem about something else important. Responses said it started out okay, had some good moments. Greatness was not mine.

Alas, like a singer I apparently have a range. Quirky, "jazzy" and "cute." I guess as long as I'm healthy and have enough to eat there is no point in wishing things were different. I've tried working within my range with very serious subject matter: In one poem I think is a good one, the speaker verbally abuses an ugly girl on a crowded greyhound bus. While I read it, the workshop laughed. "What are you laughing at? This is a very tragic poem," I said. The reply: "It's just the way you put things, like, her stye looked like a tomato seed." "But that's what a stye looks like," I said, chagrined.

Think it's time I gave up.