The not-entirely-random thoughts of Chris Brecheen about writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Dangerous Intersection

There's a really dangerous intersection near my house. I have to be careful when I'm walking with The Contrarian. It's a one way turn from a freeway offramp, so drivers often only look left to see if there's oncoming traffic before turning. If I'm coming from my house (coming from their left), they usually see me without any problem, but if I'm walking towards home (from the right) they often don't bother looking–they glance to see if there's oncoming traffic and then dart out, never thinking that there could be a pedestrian coming from the other direction. Every couple of days, drivers whip out without even seeing me and if I'd kept walking, I would have been hit. I try to make sure I have eye contact before proceeding. There was a near miss yesterday as a driver–

DRA: Not all drivers are like that. I'm not like that.

Where did you come from? I'm in the middle of a Writing About Writing post. Excuse me. Anyway, I have to keep vigilant for these drivers because they don't look both ways–

DRA: Not all drivers do that. You can't just make sweeping generalizations like that.

Okay, I don't know what you're doing here, but you're kind of derailing my point. Enough drivers are like that to make being a pedestrian very dangerous–especially when they don't think to look out for our safety.

DRA: What you are saying impugns all drivers, and we need to stop painting them all with the same brush. Not all drivers are so careless.

Yes, but all pedestrians are in danger and have to be careful of drivers who aren't.

DRA: But what you said was about all drivers. ALL drivers are not dangerous drivers, this is about drivers. Because you are generalizing in a way that hurts me.

Actually this is about me almost getting hit.

DRA: By ONE driver. ONE bad apple.

Yes, but this happens all the time. I am constantly being endangered by drivers. I don't know which drivers are going to be the safe ones and which ones are going to not pay attention at a one way turn.

DRA: Not me though. This is about all the good drivers out there you're hurting and offending with your generalizations. I take umbrage with you painting "drivers" with the same brush.

This is not about drivers. This is about how dangerous it is to be a pedestrian. I'm sure there are great drivers, but enough of them are dangerous that my safety becomes an issue almost daily.

DRA: You know drivers probably wouldn't almost hit you if you wore something more visible. Maybe you should carry a whistle to let them know you're there. Maybe if you walked in pairs you would be easier to spot.

Or maybe they should look both ways because that's like the first thing you learn in driving school.

DRA: I do look both ways.

Great. Then this is not about you.

DRA: It is about me because I'm a driver. You said "DRIVERS" don't look both ways. Not all of us are like that. Most of us look both ways. Whoever allegedly almost hit you is probably a good driver too. They spend their whole lives making safe turns and now you want to assassinate their character because they didn't think one turn all the way through?

I'm not assassinating anything. They almost hit a baby. And it happens EVERY FUCKING DAY.

DRA: So you say. I'm sorry, but I can't really even listen to this without getting the other side of the story. Well meaning drivers who (maybe) make an innocent mistake deserve my rational impartiality.

The other side of the story? What other side of the story?

DRA: How do I know you didn't make one of those "go ahead" gestures, and then regretted it after the fact.

What? Are you out of your mind? I'm telling you I was almost hit and that it happens a lot.

DRA: But you're fine. Be thankful it wasn't worse. If you really don't want to get hit, you'll dodge the cars. When a legitimate hit is coming towards you, the reflexes have ways of shutting that down.

That's completely absurd. Pedestrians get killed all the time.

DRA: Look, I'm not saying you just want attention, but there are a lot of people who fraudulently report accidents–maybe for the insurance money, or maybe just for sympathy. How do I even know you're not one of those?

Why would I do that?

DRA: How should I know? You pedestrians have your reasons. Did you report this "terrible crime"?

The cops wouldn't care.

DRA: Convenient. Did anybody else see it happen?

Lots of people saw it. Nobody did anything. I don't know who any of them are, and they didn't stop to do anything about it.

DRA: Wow. The convenient hits just keep on coming. Pedestrians have been making up stories about dangerous drivers for a long time.

Pedestrians get killed by drivers all the time! How is that making anything up?

DRA: Sure, but those pedestrians... I mean they're near the road, wearing clothes that don't scream "get away." They're kind of asking for it. I mean sometimes drivers can't control their vehicles. Drivers will be drivers. Have you even bothered to think about how traumatized the driver might be? 

Are you completely out of your mind?

DRA: Changing drivers is too hard. You should focus on how to make sure pedestrians DON'T GET HIT. You can't just go around generalizing that all drivers are bad because you didn't bother to undergo a few basic safety precautions.

Yes, I fucking can! Get out of my post. Go away!

DRA: I don't see why you can't be reasonable about this. Pedestrians are always so hysterical about everything. I already can't drive my monster truck on their sidewalks without consequence, but they sure can come into my streets any time they want. You Pedestrian Safety Warriors and your anti-driver rhetoric are just trying to destroy good and decent drivers with your Pedestradry. I'm tired of your anti-driver, anti-car bigotry.


DRA: And why aren't we talking about how often people on foot hurt cars. I mean they can key them or break their windows. Do you think it's another driver who steals a stereo systems. No. It's a person on foot. The struggle is real.

That has nothing to do with–

DRA: Wait you said this happens a lot? Why do you keep putting yourself in that position day after day.

What? You mean walking down the street?

DRA: Honestly, you probably wanted to get hit. I mean, look at how much attention you're getting.

You need to leave.

DRA: Sounds like you could use a good collision honestly. I hope you get run over!

Get the fuck out of my post.

DRA: Look I'm sorry that you're misunderstanding me. See how emotional pedestrians are? And they're anti-driver bigots. 



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Whipping Up Some Grounded Parents

Today my blogging ju-ju is going towards writing a long overdue post for Grounded Parents about polyamory and skepticism. If you want to see that post the instant it is done, be sure to follow me on one of the social media where I post everything I write (not just Writing About Writing posts).

In the meantime, I give you The Ideology of Skepticisma post I wrote for G.P. a few months ago about the dangers of treating issues within skepticism with ideological tools instead of a gritty self-questioning quest for truth.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Best Heroine (SEMIfinal 1)

Who is the best fiction heroine?  

The results of your votes in the quarterfinal polls are in and the survivors are on to the semifinals. Come vote to see who will end up in the final round.

I'll run the semifinal polls for two weeks each. I will take the top five names from each on to the final round.

Everyone will get three votes (3). Before you simply vote for your favorite three, consider that, as there is no ranking of those three votes; each vote beyond one dilutes the power of your choices a little more. So if you have a genuine favorite--or pair of favorites--it's better to use as few votes as possible.

The poll itself is on the left side at the bottom of the side menus. 

Don't forget that the Polldaddy program tracks the ISP you vote from for only a week. Since I can't stop people from voting twice, I might as well work it into the system. Vote early! Vote often!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Not ALL MFAs (Mailbox)

But my MFA was different!  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Some days I respond to responses of my responses.]   

My MFA was great/I value my MFA/My program didn't hate genre/My teachers weren't lit snobs/My program wasn't like that/Clearly you just don't respect the MFA/Y U h8 on muhfays?/~screams and flings poo~

My reply:
I begin with a true story: I once wrote two versions of a post, placing one on one social media and another on another. The posts were identical in their valuation of Creative Writing MFA programs as useful to some writers but not others. One post, however, concluded that MFAs were not for everyone and only particular kinds of writers would be able to appreciate them. It framed an MFA as something that only an elite cadre of writers could truly handle. MFA graduates LOVED this post and took the time to tell me how insightful it was. The other post, identical in every other way, said that MFAs were not a good decision for most writers. It framed an MFA as something not every writer would actually want. MFA graduates HATED this post and took the time to tell me how wrong it was.

With the exception of "write every day," my blogging about MFA programs gets me the most antipodean feedback. ("You are so right/wrong! I want to shake your hand/punch you in the face. Please have my babies/die in a fire.") Even the spate of cheers and jeers that starts rolling in around August or in response to my Nano caution can't compete with the ongoing attrition people seem fit to visit on me because I've dared approach the question of MFA programs with some nuance.

Two Sundays ago, I got a phone call from a New York Times journalist who had run across my 14 Reasons (Not) to Get an MFA post, and wanted to use parts of it in a piece she's doing on writing programs. (It was mostly just clarifying and background questions–I'll let you know as soon as I hear anything about the piece.)

She seemed to understand the morass of intense feelings that she was about to slog into and asked her questions carefully. I did the best I could to not represent myself as anti-MFA so much as anti-"I-don't-know-what-to-do-next-and-I'm-not-a-famous-novelist-so-I-guess-I'll-get-an-MFA," which is far more accurate. But it reminds me of so many of the comments and conversations I've had about that article, as well as several follow up posts.

People like to skim the bullet points, file everything under a "good" or "bad" column, ignore nuance (or miss it because it wasn't in the bullet points), and then fire off nasty responses. I'm not sure if they quite realize how foolish that makes them look. I mean...I'm an English major and an English teacher. One of my superpowers is knowing when someone hasn't really done the reading.

Nobody likes to think maybe they turned left when they should have turned right or that a decision they made wasn't the best. And while I'm not sure why everyone wants their decision to be a one-size-fits-all BEST CHOICE EVER FOR ANYONE EVER, they do seem to get defensive if anyone impugns them.

The problem is that we all want to be special snowflakes, unless it involves other people not wanting what we have. Then you can take that special snowflake and shove it into the oven. It doesn't count if we go our own way for our own reasons. We have to go our own way and be envied by people realizing the folly of not being us. MFAs not being for everyone is okay as long as it's in an elitist way, not a pragmatic one.

Anyway, on to the responses:

Clearly you don't understand why anyone would get an MFA.

Clearly you didn't make it to the end of the article before hitting reply. You should try that in the future. It makes your righteous indignation so much less head pat worthy. Now run along....

I love literary writing. I'm a poet.

Then you probably will enjoy the number two reason I gave for getting an MFA. You did make it all the way to the end, right?

These aren't good reasons not to do something. I want/wanted to get an MFA!

Yes, why on Earth would warning people they are about to spend three years getting a pragmatically useless degree with a $30,000 price tag for a bunch of justifications they could mostly replicate themselves constitute good reasons to caution someone of something? What WAS I thinking?

Look, if you really want/wanted to get an MFA, and you bothered to read the article, then you already know, you're not really my target audience. You are mentioned explicitly in the last few paragraphs. Take deep breaths and repeat to yourself "the blogoverse does not revolve around me."

I got a lot of value out of my MFA! 

Awesome! I hope it was equal to the value of the time and money you put in because that is the point I've made only about half a billion times. If the corner drug store were giving out MFAs for five bucks, I would have no end of good things to say about them. If MFAs were free and could be done through correspondence courses on the weekends, I would probably be one of their biggest cheer leaders. If MFAs were the vital first step in a career as a published author, I would be the first to let you know that it's just part of the cost of doing business. For most people, with the kind of writing they really want to do, just sitting down to do some hard work would save them about thirty grand and three years of navigating pedagogy that might be antithetical to their writing.

I wouldn't have written my novel if it weren't for my MFA.

That sounds like a real problem. I hope you cultivate the discipline to sit down and write on your own because when your MFA is over, you can't just go get another one.

What I learned was worth more than what I paid.

Only if you pay handsomely for that warm, fuzzy feeling. Look, dewd, this isn't medical school. The ROI on a Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts is the worst of any advanced degree, and a lot of people have a real ideological problem with going into debt to "study" art. The professorships look suspiciously like a ponzi scheme (and even if they're not, that comparison is so accurate is chilling), and published, successful writers, with only a few exceptions, do not have a lot of great things to say about their programs. Many of the things MFAs actually teach can be replicated with an internet connection and some dedicated time.

X part of my program isn't like you describe.

There are hundreds of MFA programs in the U.S.  I'd be more surprised if they were all alike. Some have better guest programs. Some explicitly like genre fiction. Some have worked very, very hard to incorporate non white, non male, non cis, non het, non upper middle class voices (and some have even had some success). I hear there's one that doesn't allow boxed wine at their literary events. (Unconfirmed.) My generalizations are based on reading HUNDREDS of MFA graduates write about their experiences when I was finishing up my undergrad and deciding what I was going to do next. Such an overview necessitates some generalizations.

Most MFAs are funded. They pay you.

This statement is accuracy challenged. A few prestigious programs may be able to pay your tuition and offer you a small stipend if you teach undergrads, but this work won't be idyllic cloud watching, and funded programs amount to a small number of prestigious MFA programs. Most you pay for.

It's not going to hurt your resume.

A lot of things "won't hurt" your resume. I know a guy who still puts winning a hot dog eating contest on his just to prove he's a jocular spirit. No one has ever told him hot dog lovers weren't welcome or that the inappropriateness of that accolade cost him the job. On the other hand, it has also never been the deciding factor in getting him a job. ("Well, we have someone better qualified, but they look like a stick in the mud, and frankly, I'd sort of love to see you working hundreds of meaty phallic symbols.") We actually rate the value of most three year programs that cost as much as the downpayment on a house not by their inability to cause harm, but by their PROACTIVE ability to be helpful. It's wild and radical, I know, but most people don't have the privilege of spending that kind of time and money on something that "couldn't hurt."

Mandatory hot dog GIF

MFAs are absolutely vital in performing arts.

Um.... You're right. Performing arts are very different than creative writing. You look through a playbill at a professional theater and the question won't be IF someone has an MFA, but where it's from. However, those programs offer years of intense practice and training that hone voice and dance skills (and have a horrific hazing and attrition rate) which Creative Writing MFAs, outside of the most prestigious programs, notoriously lack.

Hey, I met agents in my program.

Sure you did. So did I. But those agents weren't there to meet you. They were there to meet all of you. They were there as part of the curriculum. They probably paneled a talk for dozens of students, maybe glanced at a couple of pages of your writing and gave you some quick advice along with dozens of others. Maybe you got a card. Meeting an agent is really not that difficult, but you still have to impress them with your writing if you want to be taken on. That's no different than someone who isn't in an MFA program. They won't be excited to meet you or keeping a close eye on you unless you're in one of the country's top programs.

MFAs Don't Cost $20,000. They're much more affordable than you claim.

You're right–well no you're not. You're actually dead wrong. But the first half of what you said is right. The current average is closer to $30,000 actually (costhelper.com), and that is JUST textbooks and tuition. The price goes up if you have to take time off of work or fold things like rent and food. I was lowballing it when I wrote that article. Thanks for the push to verify my numbers.

My program wasn't so limited/focused/myopic/experimental.

Understand that this article is now pushing three years old, and it was hardly the first piece of criticism to land about MFA programs at the time it was written. MFA programs have absolutely TANKED in the last decade partially because the extended recession means that fewer people can afford to run off and blow thirty grand, but partially because those writers who go through them and publish have said that they did almost nothing to help in the process of being a published author.

Some programs have really taken an introspective look at themselves and adjusted their pedagogy. Most have not. I'm glad you found one that isn't quagmired. Really.

Not every MFA is going to have the same limited voices.

This is a bigger problem than you seem to think. It is a mark of extraordinary financial privilege to be able to spend 30,000+ on an education that almost prides itself on a lack of a marketable skill. The overwhelming majority of MFA populations are upper middle class and white, and even when the students aren't, they are being shepherded by instructors who are.

Don't believe me? Most programs put their faculty profiles online these days and you can check out MFA program's instructors. Like this one here.  Notice anything?

Academia is whitewashed. Advanced degrees are even more so. MFAs particularly. It's so bad in Creative Writing programs that many prominent writers of color (Junot Diaz for example) have framed MFAs as antithetical in a dichotomy to POC. Think about that for a second.

Why do you hate on MFAs. You seem to like good writing.

I don't hate MFA programs; I have some problems with them. Mostly I think they are a dreadful decision for a writer who just wants to be a working novelist. It's not because they have no value or can't help anyone write better. It is because, for the vast majority of writers, they are undertaken for quite the wrong reasons--usually reasons that would be better served by simply writing.

And unless someone is going to make $30,000 from creative writing (very unlikely), they aren't "worth it." And if they're not "worth it" you better get some pretty spectacular intrinsic value.

Keep in mind that MFA programs are a pretty new phenomenon. They are only a couple of generations old and exploded mostly to fulfill a demand for a niche. With the exception of a few authors and works (notably Raymond Carver coming from the Iowa Writer's Workshop) most of the canon–that's literature and "good writing"–has been crafted without the benefit of any MFA programs. Most of the good writing from other cultures is likewise crafted without the benefit of MFA programs.

MFAs don't necessarily produce good writing. They produce literary writing. Literary fiction is a genre of its own. It is largely produced gatekeepered, and praised by a particular aesthetic of both form and content. I like literary fiction, but I have never confused its style for an automatic claim to quality and neither should anybody contemplating a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Best Heroine Poll (Quarterfinal Results)

Our final quarterfinal poll has completed. Thanks to everyone who took part. Here are the results:

Everyone from Lyra up will be going on to our semifinal polls. 

Rachel, Susan, The Wife of Bath, and Phedre will receive some lovely parting gifts; let's give them a warm round of applause for coming on the show.

So here is our list for the semifinals. Take a breather. They will kick off on Tuesday. 

Killashandra Ree–Crystal Singer
Eowyn–Lord of the Rings
Jo March–Little Women
Laura Ingalls–Little House Series
Katniss Everdeen–The Hunger Games
Charlotte–Charlotte’s Web
Cordelia Naismith–Vorkosigan Saga
Elena Michaels–Bitten
Lisbeth Salander–Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Anne Shirley–Anne of Green Gables
Hermione Granger
Honor Harrington
Keladry of Mindelan
Lyra Belacqua