MFA VS NYC

Nough said? The real question is: Are we encouraging technically competent fiction over great writing. I certainly get the feeling that one of my problems getting published (besides running two companies and having to steal hours in the middle of the night to write at all) is that my fiction does not conform to what editors look for. They want to check off the boxes. Below is one suggested structure by Philip Brewer.

  1. a character,
  2. in a situation,
  3. with a problem,
  4. who tries repeatedly to solve his problem,
  5. but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
  6. then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
  7. the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what we saw was, in fact, the final result

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of structure, and certainly any aspiring writer should be able to do it. My wishful thinking has been: As soon as I publish enough stories that fit the model and develop a following, then I can stray from the approved norm. It reminds me of freshman composition: write a beginning, middle, and end. It’s easy to understand, tells a story, and it’s great for freshman comp or a newspaper article.

But my stories don’t always follow this path. At a recent conference I workshopped a book of short stories. Yes, they weren’t all as polished as I would have liked. Yet many of the stories were exceptionally well received. They were uplifting, inspiring, clever, upsetting. The instructor said, “Start sending these out. I love it. You’re taking chances.” Toward the end of the workshop I met with an agent from a top NYC agency who had read two of the stories. She remarked, “Very creative. I really like the endings. You’ve never published, so here’s what you do. Send them out like crazy. It’s a numbers game, a full time job. After you get three or four published I can pitch the book to a publisher with the promise of a novel to come. Here’s my card.”

I was ecstatic. And I’m also building up a nice collection of rejections. The problem, it seems to me, is the stories are missing some of Mr. Brewer’s elements. They are creative yet easily readable (one of my problems in the past was asking too much of the reader.) Sometimes the main character is somewhat passive while the supporting characters react to her/his reactions. The endings are poignant, but often not validating, though always relevant (I must admit here that I find many endings, in all forms of published and even celebrated fiction, disappointing.) In short, I’m not playing the game.

Methinks there are many of me out there. I’m not a young aspiring writer. I’m a middle aged (whatever that means these days) man who has a modestly successful career and is prudent enough to not risk my family’s future over a Twilight dream. I shouldn’t have to get another degree or to move to NYC to be taken seriously.

Yes, I am still learning how to write, but the writing is good. The stories are fun, the reader can identify with the characters and still leave their world for a while. Some are more serious than others, and they all have an original voice. Maybe too original.

The debate is really MFA OR NYC, not VS. I don’t fit into either category. I’ve been in workshops with MFA students who have the same dream as I, are younger, but unfortunately have little chance of developing into good fiction writers. They’re being sold a bill of goods, and this is why many people are led to the cynical view that the MFA system in America is basically a for profit industry. An industry must have standards, and if the nuts and bolts of your product are metric it will be hard to sell. Strict standards are fine for freshman comp, but this is a Masters of Fine Arts. It’s supposed to be creative.

It is a shame that even most good fiction writers must teach to earn a living. That’s a statement about what capitalism values. The internet should provide an outlet for more creative endeavors. It’s done a fairly decent job as an outlet for the visual arts, but visual artists have for a long time been granted more license than fiction and even poetry.

MFA or NYC, Walmart or Target, TGIF or Olive Garden, Hampton Inn or Motel 6, available on any E-reader along the information interstate.

Do we feel validated now?

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