If You Can’t Drop Everything (+$30,000-60,000) for an MFA in Writing

Interested in doing an MFA in Creative Writing, but not sure you have the time/funds/ability to swing it? Read on.

I have a lot of good things to say about this book, The Portable MFA in Creative Writingand I’ll have more to say about it in future posts. For now I want to tell you that if you have been considering an MFA in Creative Writing (as I have occasionally done) it is well worth the ten or so dollars and few days or so you might spend perusing this book. You may find that an actual MFA program has more to offer you, but the book’s a pretty small investment to make to see if it might not take your writing where you’d like it to go.

One of the first ‘assignments’ in the book goes something like this (I’m paraphrasing and adapting)–

Make a list of five to seven turning points in your own life and note the years in which those turning points occurred. Now make a list of historical connections to those years. What happened in the news, in sports, in politics, in entertainment? Think about how (if at all) your life was influenced by those apparently surface events.

So I did just that, discovering in the process that it’s really quite easy to use Wikipedia (I simply Googled, for example, “1994 what happened wiki” and it took me straight away to the right page) to tell you significant events from those years, including the births and deaths that happened there. Within the first twenty minutes of engaging in this exercise my mind was shooting off all kinds of ideas.

Try this exercise if you like, and definitely check out The Portable MFA book. If you tweet about what you’re learning (or not learning!) use the hashtag #PortableMFA.

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Books (And Authors) You Can’t Get Out Of Your Mind

I have a long history of becoming pretty obsessed with a particular story or book. I am only slightly embarrassed to confess that I collapsed dramatically on the carpet of the bedroom of my high school years weeping when Fantine died in my first reading of Les Miserables. It is slightly more embarrassing to confess that I really enjoyed the drama of collapsing and weeping over a book. Months later, when my mother and I went to see the musical on Broadway on my 16th birthday, we wept dramatically together on the train ride home. The next day I went to a record store (remember those?) to use my birthday money to buy the Original Broadway Cast recording of the show, so that I could do more listening and weeping.

This week (and last) the book I’ve been obsessing and crying over is Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, and the author is David Rakoff.

Rakoff said that as a child he was “tiny, articulate, and vibrating with anxiety and fear,” which also describes the child version of me pretty well. I was actually quite easygoing much of the time, except I would lie awake poking at my abdomen and thinking that my intestines were cancerous growths. Also, once, I read some really scary junk mail from some crazy group which said  the Holocaust was nothing in comparison with what the Bible predicted would one day happen to Jews (like me, because Hitler didn’t care if you were baptized or if you had a goyische father as I was and I did), and that kept me over-alert, waiting for the sound of goosestepping, for months. (I think I was seven). All that to say: I can really relate to so much of Rakoff’s writing.

This week on my blog, I want to introduce you to some of my favorite bits of David Rakoff’s work: nothing like a formal review here (but look for that elsewhere–I’ll tell you when), just some tidbits. I’m aware that he’s not for everyone; his language and subject matter is not always ‘family friendly,’ shall we say, but there is so much good in Rakoff that I feel compelled to share.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from his first book of essays, Fraud:

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On his strange lack of memory surrounding his cancer treatment at age 22:

“What remains of your past if you didn’t allow yourself to feel it when it happened? If you don’t have your experiences in the moment, if you gloss them over with jokes or zoom past them, you end up with curiously dispassionate memories. Procedural and depopulated. It’s as if a neutron bomb went off and all you’re left with are hospital corridors, where you’re scanning the walls for familiar photographs.”

On the curiously peaceful and un-cranky atmosphere in the new Princess Margaret hospital where he was treated:

“When medicine is socialized, when you have true universal health care, when everyone’s treatment is the same regardless of socioeconomic station, those strong-arming attitudes of entitlement just aren’t part of the vocabulary. This atrium, this lovely space in a hospital with a world-class reputation, is actually the equivalent of a state hospital. That American sense that someone somewhere else is getting what you’re not, and the attendant demands that go along with that perceived injustice, well, it’s just not in the equation here.”

And on the necessity of a sense of humor:

“Not being funny doesn’t make you a bad person. Not having a sense of humor does.”


Don’t Criticize Notorious Leader Donald Miller


A few weeks ago, Donald Miller (who’s a New York Times bestselling author and a popular blogger) wrote a post  about how, as an introvert, he must order his life so that he can get his writing done. One of the things he does is “make sure [he has] until 5 each day completely free to write,” which is, of course, historically and globally, an exceptional privilege; one that almost no one can replicate. True, Donald did not present his routine as prescriptive (as the first cartoon cell above suggests) but the title, “How to Avoid a People Hangover,” does give that impression.

So last week, my friend Ellen Painter Dollar wrote a post about how, as an introvert AND a mom, she (and other writer-mom-friends, of which I am one) managed to make time for writing amid our busy lives. Many of us who write have nothing close to the luxury of Miller’s “until 5 each day completely free to write,” and Ellen’s post resonated with those of us (which is most of us) who write in the snatches of time we can get between our ‘real’ jobs and our family obligations. Her post was hardly any sort of harsh criticism. Rather, it stated what could be understood as fairly obvious to anyone reading Donald’s original post: most people can’t do this.


Donald Miller replied on Twitter, first saying “love this!” and then, some hours later, sent this:

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Then Donald Miller wrote another post in which he talked about how much he HATES (caps lock HATES) critics, but that, * sigh, * since he talks about Jesus and is a well-known leader, criticism is going to happen, and even though he’s still really mad, he’s going to be Jesus-y about it and “turn the other cheek.”

Strip3And, of course, most of the comments and tweets from his fans are of the affirming variety, praising Miller for his Christ-like behavior in response to the “morons” and “jerks” who disagree with him. Meanwhile, when Ellen commented to remark that it seems the post is directed at her (in part to remind Miller’s readers that there might be an actual human being behind the “moron” and “jerk” labels), saying (again) she’s sorry Donald felt hurt and would welcome a private conversation with Donald, she got a lot of comments like “why are you so egotistical, Ellen? It’s not all about you, you know. Plus, why are you even criticizing Notorious Leader Donald Miller? And in the wrong way?”

Who, exactly, is being egotistical here: the one talking about how he HATES critics and wants to smash their heads into lockers (except he would never do that, because he was sweet and shy and ate donuts in junior high, he says) while demurring that the only reason anyone could be criticizing him is that he’s so famous, and Jesus-y, and a leader…

…or the person who had some criticisms of something the leader wrote and who was (understandably) a little bothered by the frankly mean rhetoric he directed at her just a few days ago, and whose outline of the events (numbered 1, 2, 3 & so on) exactly parallel their exchange last week?


What I have to say about this is really very simple: when a person publicly says something like, “I’m going to be like Jesus even though I’m really mad and would like to smash things and/or people, but clearly they are just mad at me because I talk about Jesus and I’m famous,” that is not ‘daring,’ ‘honest,’ ‘raw,’ or anything else. It is humble-bragging of the very worst kind, the kind that brings Jesus along to co-sign one’s own bullsh*t, and that is sly blasphemy.

Receiving criticism is hard. Receiving it WELL is harder. But there are (at least) two ways to invoke Jesus in these situations that are, from my (limited and flawed) point of view, hideously wrong:

1. Invoking Jesus to say something like “I pretty much hate you but I love Jesus more than I hate you.”

(translation: I hate you AND I’m going to brag about how much more spiritual I am than you.)

2. Invoking Jesus to say something like “clearly it’s because I’m so famous and influential and Jesus-y that I’m even getting criticism.”

(translation: I am awesome, so why should I even listen to critics, who clearly are always wrong?)

And no fair putting Jesus in the “nice” category so that speaking up or speaking out about these kinds of things is categorically un-Jesus-y because Jesus is just ‘nice.’ Because that is just not true, and if I may continue being frank, it is just as not true for women as it is for men, although we women are, in my (limited) experience, more likely to be called names or accused of ‘bad motives’ for telling the truth as we see it.

“A plain fact spoken by a woman’s tongue is not infrequently perceived as a cutting blade directed at a man’s genitals.” (Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born)

(Donald’s original post, Ellen’s response, Donald’s post on hating critics.)

What I Have Learned About Writing and Life from Lego (and my kids)

Three and a half years ago, after my son Aidan broke his leg on the slippery floor of a Franprix supermarket in Paris, and after the initial shock and pain began to wear off, we had to figure out what on earth we were going to do with a suddenly immobile almost-4 year old. One can only watch so many movies, and I wasn’t at all sure I was ready to introduce him to video games.

So I consulted my Paris guidebook, located the nearest toyshop on the map, and headed over with my mom and Graeme, who was then a 1-year-old cherub with golden curls. I don’t remember what-all was purchased on that day—there may have been some crayons and coloring books, long since consumed—except that this was when we bought our family’s first box of Lego (and one of Duplo, so as not to leave out the cherub.)

We set Aidan up in bed with a tray upon which to build, and build he did—and hasn’t really stopped since.

Within the year he was creating his own designs, based on things we’d see around town, things he saw in books or in movies, cars and trucks he saw driving by, and so on. (And of course, he was making Lego swords and other weapons, too, sigh.) Every birthday and Christmas saw his collection increase, and the vast majority of toys brought to Malawi from home are…Lego, of course.

What I love about Lego is that most Lego bricks—even if they come as part of a kit—are fabulously open-ended. A piece from a castle can become part of a spaceship or part of a digger or part of a scabbard or part of a ship. I love that there is simply no limit to what can be made with them—they have made binoculars and dragons and medical equipment. I love that when they hear a new story or go on a new sort of adventure, they come back to the pile of Lego and recreate what they’ve encountered…in Lego. They are always confident that the exact right piece exists and that they can find it. They’re always tweaking their creations and improving them. And it’s not work for them…it’s pure pleasure.

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When I watch them build, or when they proudly present their creations to me, I feel like I’m encountering something that’s so pure and important, not because of childhood innocence or some such thing, but because they work with the raw materials of their craft with such fearless confidence. They see a Land Rover, determine to recreate one in Lego, gather the pieces, build it, play with it…it might take hours, but they will do it with such focus and seriousness that it’s easy to forget they are children at play.

This is the kind of thing, I think, that most of us are—or were—capable of; that self-forgetfulness, that feverish making-of-things, even if the things we are making are made only (only!) of words. We encounter something that inspires us—on Pinterest, or at the market, on a hike, or in a book—and we are determined to make something of it with whatever it is we have at our disposal: pen and paper, fresh ingredients, fabric and thread, acrylic and canvas. We can use whatever we have and take our time, and we can always take a break to eat some peanut butter and crackers or page through a Tintin book. We end up doing more than just distracting ourselves from boredom and pain and (what feels like immobility.)

We are binding up the broken bits and mapping our way through streets and wildernesses unknown, one brick, one word, one glimpse at a time.

Write It As YOU See It.

My dad will tell you that when I was little, I penned stories that sounded exactly like whatever books I was reading, which is to say that Ann M. Martin could have totally enlisted me as a ghostwriter for her series, The Babysitter’s Club. Yes, I wrote fanfiction before I even knew it was a thing. It’s fun.

Almost any writer, if asked, “how do I improve my writing?” will say two things: 1. write (almost) every day, and 2. READ. Well, of course: anything that one does every day becomes easier over time, and apprenticeship is a time-honored way of learning. Reading is one way of apprenticing yourself to a writer, of learning the craft.

Yet I would add one thing: write as you see it. In a previous version of this post, I rather pointedly took down a particular style of blog-writing that appears to be trendy, then thought of one or two other styles that appear trendy (all following a handful of popular bloggers), then realized that the style’s not exactly the point.

The point is that in a world that rewards the handful of people who are very, very, very successful at their chosen pursuit, it’s hard to imagine that you might find success (or simply satisfaction) merely as yourself, and not as some version of the already-successful star.

And I suspect that for every Ann Voskamp and Rachel Held Evans there are scores of writers striving to be similarly (meditative, gratitude-bathed, syntax-inverting, filtered-photograph-illustrated ) or (funny, provocative, egalitarian, emboldened topic sentence-loving). They have clearly tapped into Something that Readers Want.

As much as I believe that reading improves people’s writing, I’m convinced that good writing comes from someplace else. It comes from writing things down precisely as you (you! you! you!) see them–not from writing them down the way Popular Writer X would nor by writing them down in the style that Today’s Readers Enjoy.

I don’t read many books on writing at all, simply because I would rather read about other things, but one that I keep nearby always is Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. It’s all about silencing the voices in your head that say “you can’t!” and freeing yourself to express what it is you have to express in ways that are fresh and exciting because they come from you–not from who or what you think you should be.

Let other people write as they writefor you to write as they do will never be more than fan(non)fiction. Write it as you see it.

It’s a reminder I need fairly often. Maybe you do, too!

“…so long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery and engagement of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources.” ~Marilynne Robinson