June 3, 2021 / 4 Comments

Thank Your Rich Uncle…

Happy Birthday to me. Well, belated birthday. Monday was a day of action figures and LEGO sets and many games and drinks with my fully vaxxed friends. It was a wonderful way to turn <<–DC REBOOT–>> years old.

Anyway… now that I am somewhat old and wise, I wanted to take a moment to blather on about something that’s been itching at my brain for a while. And I know it’s going to be a touchy subject for some people, so I’ll try to tread lightly.

MFA programs. Why do these things even exist?

See! I told you it’d be touchy! Just to be clear right up front, this is absolutely not a swing at anyone who made it through an MFA program and got a degree. I know MFA writers are popular punching bags for some people, and this is not one of those posts. I’m a huge believer that pretty much all education ends up being useful (even if not always in the way it was intended) and I’ve got massive respect for anyone who actually did it. I enjoyed my four years at UMass, but I also know I wouldn’t’ve had the stamina (or the resources) to make a graduate degree happen. So this is, again, not coming down on anyone who scraped and clawed their way up through a higher level of higher education and came out on top.

You absolutely rock. Seriously. Never doubt it.

The people who gave you that MFA though…

Probably a good point to mention before I get going is none of this has been triple-checked or peer reviewed or anything like that. But within my own experience–including a degree of research specifically about this–I haven’t found anything to contradict any of it. Like, a disturbing number of things line up with this half-assed theory I’m about to present to you.

So… one of the main reasons writers and other artists tend to get the liberal/ fruity/ beatnik type labels is because, traditionally, if I wanted to learn one of these fields I just did it. People didn’t go to school to learn how to write, they just wrote. They dropped out of “productive society” and wrote a lot. For the vast majority of folks this meant finding a dirt-cheap apartment in a city close to publishers (to save postage costs), drinking cheap booze, having cheap affairs, and skipping two meals a day to pay for supplies. Eventually (hopefully) I learned from experience, got better, and then people started to pay me. That’s where the stereotype of the starving artist comes from—most of these folks went hungry while they learned their art. I talked about this at length a few birthdays back…

Yeah, if I was really lucky I might find some kind of mentor to show me how to hold a brush, where to hit the marble with the chisel, or to read the first half page of my story and offer a dozen notes right there. But these were kinda few and far-between. I mean, think about it. In terms of any general population (pick your favorite city or state or country) there are only going to be so many successful artists. So out of that limited number, I need to actually find one of them, and it needs to be someone in the field I want to study, and they need to be willing to offer some sort of mentorship, ANDthey need to have space/ time for me, personally. I mean, there’s probably hundreds of other people looking for mentors too, right? It absolutely happened, no question… but it probably didn’t happen a lot, just applying a little common sense.

Now the reason people had to learn this way is universities and colleges didn’t teach the arts. No painting or dance or acting or writing. Really. They were professional institutions. People went there to learn engineering, medicine, chemistry, law. You know… real jobs.

Worth noting there were a very small number of these schools with writing classes. But even in those cases this wasn’t something you got a degreein. It was just a side thing—some exercises to maybe help you write a better closing speech for the jury.

And yes, I know—there were a few specialist art school out there. Very few, comparatively speaking. The odd music academy or dance conservatory. But this wasn’t considered higher education. It was—at best—more like we’d consider a vocational school. And if you think about it, that kind of makes sense. Sure I can teach you how to write notation for sheet music and how to blow on a flute. But I can’t teach you how to compose the song in your head. And as we’ve talked about here many, many times, somebody can’t teach you the “correct” way for you to write. We all need to figure that out for ourselves.

So what changed? How did writing (and the other arts) suddenly become a “teachable” thing? Well, two things happened. Actually, one thing happened, but a second thing had a very powerful impact on that first one.

In reverse order, the second one was Nazis. Hate those guys, right? In case you missed that week of  grade school history, in the mid-late 1930s a right-wing fascist group gained a ton of power in Germanyand made life miserable for pretty much everyone in Europe. And a lot of people in Africa. And Asia. Eventually the USjoined in the fight (to quote Eddie Izzard, “after a couple of years, we won’t stand for that anymore!”) and sent sixteen million people off to fight.

After WWII, a lot of folks—like with WWI before it—were just left wrecked by the scale of it all. The things they’d done. The things they’d seen. I mean, by the numbers, the odds were you saw someone die every single day. For maybe four years. So when the war ended, most USservicemen got a slow boat home. A deliberately slow boat. So these soldiers had time to breathe, to look at the waves, and to talk. Most importantly, to do it with a bunch of people who’d just gone through the same things they did.

And when they got home, that first thing I mentioned was waiting for them.

Y’see, the US Government had come up with something called the GI Bill. WWI (and its aftermath) was still fresh in a lot of folks’ minds and everybody wanted to make sure this new wave of veterans were taken care of when they came home. So the government said “When you finish your tour, go to college on us! We’ll cover it.” Because it was a win-win for the United States. We’re taking care of veterans andwe’re making more doctors, engineers, and scientists. Wooo! Yay us! We rock!

So these guys got home, Big Government pulled out the big checkbook and said “Congrats on surviving–what college do you want to go to? What do you want to study? Law? Medicine? Rocket science? We’re going to need some more rocket scientists pretty soon.”

But a bunch of these guys said “Y’know… I think I might just take a year or three off and process all this some more. Work through it. Maybe write a book or some poetry, put some of this stuff in my head down on the page while I try to figure out what I’m doing next.”

Now this wasn’t the first time Uncle Sam had heard something like this (again, WWI just thirty years earlier). So he shoved the checkbook back in his pocket, put a firm hand on these guys’ collective shoulders and said “Good on you, man. You go do what you need to do to get right.”

And that would’ve been it. Except… suddenly the collective colleges and universities of Americasaid “Whoa, whoa, WHOA! You promised us all this GI Bill money! You said hundreds of thousands of soldiers were going to be signing up for college!”

”Yeah,” said Big Government, “but they don’t want to be doctors or lawyers now. They just want to write a book about their experiences.”

”Well, let’s not be hasty,” said the CEO of All Colleges. “I mean we… we’ve got writing… programs.”

You do?”

“Oh, yeah. Yeah. A whole department. Several departments. They could absolutely get a degree in… in the arts. In fine arts, even! You just write those checks, Big Uncle Sammy, we’ll have everything ready by September.”

Worth noting my friend M.L. Brennan (college professor and vampire author) heard this line of thought from me a while back and pointed out all of this continued (arguably got a lot worse) in the ‘90s when college loans became a serious for-profit business. Higher education became less about, well, education and more about making money. So it’s not surprising MFA programs multiplied like bunnies shortly after that. You want to go to college for what? Yeah, sure, we’ve got a program for that. Just sign your loan papers…

And that’s how writing became something that’s taught. Colleges and universities just wanted the money. Which also meant now they needed to make up rules and guidelines and formulas to try to teach all these things. Because if there weren’t any rules, they wouldn’t be able to issue grades and some students couldn’t do better than others. Which would mean this “degree” I got is… well, kinda pointless. Maybe even worthless.

Which brings us to the last thing I’m going to say about MFA programs—their abysmal success rate. Seriously. For most college degrees (of any level), we say “making a living at it” is more or less the end goal of getting the degree. If I go to school to be, say, a high school teacher, and 83% of us in that program become high school teachers, that’s a pretty successful program, right?

With that in mind, as another friend, Kristi Charish, has pointed out…what would you think of a school where less than 5% of education graduates end up making a living as teachers? What could we say about an engineering program where only one or two students out of the entire graduating classactually become engineers?

I mean… seriously, does that sound like a successful program? A terribly useful degree? Especially if there are dozens of other people becoming successful teachers or engineers without that degree? I mean, Kristi told me at her school the science department had produced more successful novelists than the MFA program.

And again, I want to stress, this isn’t about the people who got those degrees. As I said at the start of this, I’m impressed by anyone who makes it through a graduate program. And I absolutely think some useful learning can come out of it.

But if someone’s about to make that choice, I’ve got to be honest… I’d tell them it’s probably not worth it. They might get something out of it, yeah, but odds are they could get that thing somewhere else. Probably a lot easier and definitely a lot cheaper.

Also again… none of this has been rigorously reviewed. There could very well be a dozen facts I missed just sitting out there, ready to tear this whole chain of thought apart brick by brick. And if so, please give me those facts. I’m always glad to know more.

Next time… I want to talk about the story that happens five years later. Or really, the opening that happened five years ago. 

Until then, go write.

March 15, 2021 / 2 Comments

One Last Look Back

Just a bit of random musing, not quite so writing related. Or maybe it is.

Did my taxes last weekend. Well, I did the part of my taxes where I sort through a box of receipts and notes and paperwork and try to organize them by deductible categories so I can hand them off to someone more knowledgeable than me. It’s a pain, but I admit I also kind of like doing it. No really. Yeah, even though half of it’s just meaningless numbers, things I saved for this line or that expense.

It’s the other half that makes it enjoyable. That’s the part that becomes a little time-capsule look at the past year. Meals out with friends. Date nights with my partner. Hey, look, there’s me buying myself the LEGO Bookstore set to celebrate the release of Terminus. Here’s the assorted gas/comics/food receipts from my monthly road trip up to LA for the Writers Coffeehouse and the Last Bookstore dystopian book club.

Which is what got me thinking, because last night was said dystopian book club. It was also the one year anniversary of the last time we all met in person (and where my number of receipts dropped drastically). We’ve been meeting on Zoom since then. Last March most smart people were already seeing the signs and realizing how bad this could be. And even though *cough* certain people kept going on TV and saying “it’s not a big deal, it’ll be gone in a few weeks, don’t worry about it,” the rest of us were thinking maaaaaaybe we should just shop really late at night when nobody’s around. Or how much does getting groceries delivered really cost?

I’m guessing most of you are in the same boat. We’re all hitting our personal Covid-versaries about now. It’s been a brutal year, and I think, alas, we’re probably still in for some brutality to come. The fight’s almost over, but there’s still time for a cracked rib or a black eye. In fact, I’m tempted to say there’s definitely a few body blows in our near future, collectively or individually.

It’s also been a rough twelve months creatively. I mean, at this point a year ago I was about halfway through the first draft of a project. And a few months later I was… still about halfway through the first draft. It took a while to get the mental gears meshing again, and that’s considering I’m in the very fortunate, privileged position where lockdown didn’t change my life that much. My partner and I both work from home, and we didn’t have to stress about losing work. We don’t have kids. We’re used to just spending time with each other and not going out much.

What I’m getting at is if this year messed up myability to write, I’m impressed as hell by all of you in not-as-favorable who’ve gotten writing done. If you worked up the energy and drive to get some pages done, that’s seriously great. If you managed to get some things edited, that’s just fantastic. If you managed to do a whole draft? Holy crap, that’s plain amazing. You got a whole draft done during this past year? That’s phenomenal! Talk about focus—you’re a friggin’ machine!

Did you get more than that done? Shut up. Nobody wants to hear you gloat about it.

No, it’s okay. You can gloat a little. Seriously, it’s unbelievable that you managed to stay the course during all this.

Again, if you got something done—anything—during this hellish plague year, you should be proud of yourself. Writing’s tough when things are great. If you can keep doing it during a year like 2020, well…

Think what you’ll be able to do once this is over.

Wow. It just fully hit me that NaNoWriMo starts on Sunday. And I’d hoped to partake this year as well.

I have to admit, my brain is kind of fried. Wouldn’t be surprised if yours is too. But this is the job. Time to buckle down and…

Okay, look. This is actually, legally, my career. I’ve hit that fortunate point where I don’t have to do anything else except write (and maybe watch the occasional B-movie now and then while I build toy soldiers). I mean, at this point my accountant and the IRS both consider me a full-time writer.

And maybe some of you are there too. Or maybe you’re aspiring to be there. And because you are, and because you take this seriously, you’re trying your god-damndest to treat this like a real job. You understand writing is work, and it needs to happen if you want to advance.

So one important thing to remember.

You get days off from work.

Sometimes, I think we get so caught up in that idea of writing as a career and having to write every day that we forget we can just… take a sick day. Hell, take a personal day. Use up all that vacation time you’ve been saving up. And holy crap could we all use a mental health day right now. 

And that’s okay. It’s completely fine. Yeah, even if you take this really seriously.

Look, we’re heading into our seventh or eighth month of pandemic lockdown (depending on when you started), during a third surge which most likely is just the ongoing continuation of the first surge. We’re in the middle of a USelection that’s probably going to drag on for at least a month after it technically ends, and depending on how it ends things could be very not-good in the world for a while. And this weekend a perfectly good once-in-a-blue-moon (literally) Saturday Halloween is probably going to go to waste.

It’s completely understandable that you might not feel like typing out three or four hundred words right now. I know it’s been brutal on me, and I know I’ve been very lucky during all this. I’m self-employed and I spend 90-95% of my time at home when the world isn’t on fire. So this hasn’t been that disruptive for me and I’m still friggin’ stressed out worrying about my family and friends. Because there’s one or two good reasons to worry about… well, anybody. Everybody! I can barely imagine what it’s been like for those of you who are dealing with homeschooling kids or sick family members or who are at the end of your financial thread.

Well, I know exactly what that last one’s like, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

My point is, any decent boss would give you some time off if you were going through all this. Again, sick day. Personal day. Mental health day. They might even send you a card. 

Y’see Timmy, if the goal is to eventually be our own boss, then shouldn’t we all want to be a good boss? The kind we always wanted? The ones who actually made us like our jobs? Yeah, we need to keep on track, hit goals, try to get in a few hours a week… but we also want our employees (also us) to stay healthy. Physically and mentally.

So don’t beat yourself up if you need to take some time or maybe move a little slower right now. You’re not alone. In that, and in a lot of other things.

Thursday, the usual Halloween post. And then some more NaNoWriMo encouragements.

Until then, if you’ve up for it, go write.

But don’t worry if you’re not up for it.

March 30, 2020

Topical Solution

Random post with some thoughts. So very sorry about the title, but it was too perfect not to use.
A friend of mine got in touch lately. Should I say friend? Someone I talk to fairly regularly and have met in person? I don’t want to put too much pressure on anyone… Anyway, she got in touch because she and a few other writers she knows have hit a problem with their stories. Essentially, they’ve all become a little too on the nose. Possibly even questionable.
There are folks right now who are in the middle of books and stories about pandemics. I don’t mean they’re rushing them out, trying to take advantage of current events. They’d been working on their stories for months and suddenly there it is on the news, getting shoved in their faces every time they go online. And there are folks writing stories about deadly genetically-engineered monsters coming out of China, maybe even specifically out of Wuhan. There’s somebody writing a story about health care professionals dying as they try to save patients and probably a few somebody elses writing about corrupt politicians who ignore a threat as they try to consolidate power and enrich themselves.
These aren’t specific from the writing group, by the way. This is just me riffing on things based off the general problem. But you get the idea, don’t you? Sometimes the world conspires to dump a ton of extra baggage on your story, and now people are going to look at it–and maybe you–with a much  more critical eye.

Here’s a 100% true story that’ll help get it across.
As some of you know, I used to work in the film industry, and about twenty years ago I was working on a SciFi Channel show called The Chronicle. It was about the reporters at a tabloid newspaper that actually printed true stories about vampire Elvis impersonators, alien diplomats, demonically-possessed ovens, and so on. One episode we did was about a very low-level telekinetic who wants to be a superhero, so he stages crimes and accidents across Manhattan that he’ll be able to stop with his meager powers. His big one that our heroes rush to stop is he’s planted a bomb in a New Yorkskyscraper, and they have to stop him and also stop the bomb before it blows up the building.

I’ll always remember this episode ’cause we finished filming it on September 10th, 2001.

Dead serious.

Look… the world sucks right now. It’s sucked for a couple of years, but the past month has thrown everything sideways. And it sucks even more if it’s spilling into your writing. This should be our chance to escape a bit, as writers and readers, and suddenly we’re finding out that the thing we’ve been working on for weeks or months is… well, it’s very topical. Not in the good way. In the “people point at you and scream like body snatchers” way except they’re all just screaming “Too soon!” and “What is wrong with you?!” and “J’accuse!”
And let’s be honest. It’s tough to write now withoutimaginary people shouting at you. It’s so much easier to crawl into a bottle or a bag of Doritos or that little thatch roof cottage Tom Nook loaned you money for. I’m not going to lie—I’ve lost more than a few days recently just reading news articles and texting friends and building little toy soldiers because… well, you know. I’m sure a lot of you are there, too. So once you add in that extra pressure of an idea that’s suddenly super-topical (and may be for a while)…
So. What do we do? I’ve written what I thought was going to be a really cool/creepy/thought-provoking story about a super-virus sweeping across the world, and now I’m sitting here staring at the screen thinking “…am I the baddie?” Do I toss it? Do I keep going? Do I tone it down or change a couple key elements?

Okay… look, I wish I could reassure you and give you a solid answer. I think we’d all love some reassurance and solid answers these days. But the truth is, what I do when I find myself at a point like this is going to be a very personal choice. It’s going to depend on how confident I feel about my abilities. The parallels between my work and the real world events. Honestly grasping how people will view my work in light of those events. How much conflict I want to deal with. How much of my artistic vision I’m willing to compromise. And probably more things. This is just what came to me while I’m writing in a sort of train-of-thought manner.

In some ways, this is like dealing with any similar idea cropping up. It doesn’t matter if it’s another writer or, well, reality. The way I deal with something and talk about it is going to be unique to me. My story isn’t going to be like real life because it’s my story.
And I’m not so sure about changing things. I mean, if you’re honestly inspired to alter some aspects of your story, cool. But I think forcing a change is always going to feel… forced. Especially if I’m kind of doing it under duress. I wrote this story this way for a reason, and if I compromise that reason it’s going to show.

Ultimately, this all comes down to an art vs. business discussion. If I’m just writing for me, I shouldn’t worry about what’s going on in the world. I should just tell the story I want to tell. The story I, hopefully, needto tell. Don’t compromise, don’t bend at all, just be bold and brave and beautiful and let that story out into the world.

However… if my long-term (or maybe even short-term) goal is to sell this story, I may need to keep a few things in mind. Like I mentioned up above, there are those writers who leap on every trend and news event, so there’s a good chance the market will be glutted with pandemic stories in the next month or three. They may be rushed, they may be bad, they be self- or traditionally-published. One thing we can say for almost-certain is they’ll be there.

Also… geeez, am I an insensitive monster or what? People are dying from this. Right now. And—sad to say—there’s going to be a lot more dead people by the time I get my book out. Do I want to be rubbing it in people’s faces? Do I want to profit off their pain and suffering?

This one’s tough, and how I deal with it’s going to be personal, again. What I’d ask you to keep in mind is that people wrote war stories during pretty much every war fought at any time. They’ve written disaster stories during every natural disaster you can imagine. They’ve written AI stories during all three (failed) robot uprisings. People tell stories. Storytelling is art. Art reflects life.

But that reflection brings conflict. There are always people who want to comment on stories, and a topical story is going to get more comments than most. Some people don’t want to have current events pushed back at them, even in a fictionalized form. Some folks don’t want to be reminded of what they’ve lost. And, in all honesty and fairness, some publishers would prefer to avoid that conflict.

And I know nobody wants to hear this but… there’s a time issue, too. Maybe I’ll finish my story and just need to put it aside for a while. Things that are horrifying and taboo today will be mildly scandalous in a year and blasé two years after that. I mean, twenty years after WWII we were making sitcoms about Nazi prison camps. Actual sitcoms. That ran for years.

And that episode of The Chronicle I told you about? They put it on the air. Just five months after 9/11. My story might feel inappropriate now, but in a year or so… people might smile at the idea that I felt nervous about it.

We’re going to get through this. You’re going to get through it. And—if you want it to—your story’s going to get through this. So be true to it where you need to be, change it if you think it needs to change, and write the story you need to write.
Thursday I’m going to continue the A2Q and talk about first drafts.
Until then… go write.
And wash your damned hands.