Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Master's Workshop

For those of you wondering what this spaceman is doing here, his name is "Master Chief."
Tracy and I are pretty much done with our semester at this point. We have to turn in grades for our students, but in our capacity as students we're finished for the semester -- and not a moment too soon. I will admit to some excitement at the prospect of job hunting (about which more soon, I'm sure). Sure, it's a shit economy and our skill set is not the stuff of millionaires, but I've been a full-time student twenty years now and I'm ready to live outside school a little. Soon we'll be searching for work. (If you hear anything, let us know.)

The best thing about this semester has easily been what NMSU calls "the master's workshop." (I feel I have to put this in quotes because the idea I've mastered anything here is pretty laughable. Hopefully I have achieved competence.) This has been in fact possibly the best thing about the MFA. There have been times I've doubted this whole exercise was worth it, and in the case of many MFAs I imagine I would have concluded this was so. NMSU is unusual, however, in that it has a third year wherein most of the student's time and energy is devoted to revising and refining his or her thesis. Most people write collections. In this year's fiction class, three of five students wrote novels, Tracy and myself included.

It's been really stunning to me how much of a difference working on a whole book makes. Doubtless part of the power of this experience is that we've gotten to know each other's work so well -- I imagine I could write a pretty convincing imitation of anyone in my year -- but the difference is largely in the sheer amount of text present. If you read say six or seven hundred sentences in a particular style by a writer you might know something about how that person works and how they might do it better. Reading, say, 450 pages worth (as my fellows had to do in the case of my novel) or 800 (as we did in the case of another) or, more commonly, 120-220 pages, really clarifies the issues at play. The discussion has been tremendous, thanks in part to the smallness of the class, our relative closeness and investment in each other's work, and as a result I think all of us have significantly increased our odds of producing something of lasting work. Revising my book (again) is an exciting process. We also owe a lot to our instructor Craig Holden, whose practicality and focus have been extremely helpful. The dude gets structure. Which is, as it turns out, pretty important.

Honestly this workshop has pretty much saved the MFA experience for me. Which isn't surprising, really; I've always considered myself much stronger as a novelist (and as a reader of novels) than as a short story writer (and as a reader of short stories). We'll be doing it again in the spring. I doubt it'll be as good an experience --  we've got half the time to go over this stuff and no time at all to do anything about our discussion before the thesis defense -- but that's okay. If you're considering an MFA and you can find a program that fits your needs and has a similar three-year structure, I would recommend it.

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