Saturday, August 21, 2010

Five Books I Recommend

This Tuesday will be the final session of my current Grub Street Fiction class, and the instructor has given us a fun final assignment to bring in – a list of five books we recommend, along with a short sentence or two describing what we can learn from the book. I thought I’d share mine here, as well.

In picking these five books, I tried not to recommend the most obvious (John Gardner or On Writing Well, etc). I wanted a mix of non-fiction with fiction, with different strengths to each book.

1. Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See
Making a Literary Life is a cheerful guide with practical advice on every part of the writing profession from crafting a scene to promoting your published book. There’s no way you can read this book and not pick up at least one great tip.

2. The Anatomy of Story, John Truby
On the flip side of the coin, The Anatomy of Story is a dense exploration of the components of satisfying plots and character arcs. Be forewarned that the book draws from a wide range of books and movies for its examples.

3. The Feast of Love, Charles Baxter
I’m not a “beautiful sentences” person, but I love this book for its beautiful sentences. It’s nice to have Charles Baxter in your head for a while.

4. The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
If there’s one thing to learn from Suzanne Collins, it’s courage. She puts her characters in danger on every page and doesn’t pull a punch. The tension in this book is insane.

5. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
My favorite book by my favorite author. It’s everything.

What five books would you recommend?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What does it Cost to Apply to MFA Programs?

Budgeting. How I hate it.

This week I’m taking a look at my expenses and setting up a budget for the rest of the year. My goal is to cut back on my spending enough to get through application time without having incurred credit card debt. One of the benefits of taking a whole year to work through the application process is that I’ve been able to spread out the costs across many paychecks, but even still it’s too expensive a process to get through without some penny pinching.

How much does it cost?

So far, in straight up GRE application costs, I’ve spent: $160 to take the GRE (includes score reports to 3 schools), plus about $30 in study guides and flashcards. (Luckily, my scores were high enough that I don’t need to take the test again), about $50 in administrative/organizational costs – plastic bin for my notes, folders, pens, notepads, etc., and an additional $20 on guides to mfa programs and reference books (this includes $5 in library late fees). $160 + $30 + $50 +$20 = $260. The internet is a great source for information about programs, rankings, and advice on applications, too, so a lot of my prep materials have been free.

I’ve spent much more than that on workshops and instruction (which will improve my writing whether I get into a school or not): I’ve taken two Grub Street courses at $430 each, attended the Muse and the Marketplace for $310, and spent about $100 on writing guides and subscriptions to writing magazines. $430 + $430 + $310 + $100 = $1270. Ouch.

That means so far this year I’ve spent over $1500 on writing, even without taking into account the costs associated with internet, coffee, or copies. And I haven’t even started an application.

I have every reason to believe the second half of this year will cost even more. Because the acceptance rates are so low at these schools, I plan to apply to somewhere between 12-15 schools. For each school, I’ll pay an application fee between $50-$75, plus $23 for my GRE score report (except the 3 I already sent scores to), $18 for my alma mater to send my transcripts, and probably $15 in envelopes and postage when all is said and done. That’s $128 per school. Figure in printing/copying costs and I’m looking at $2000.

It’s stressful to think that I may spend all this money and still not be accepted. I’ve decided not to apply anywhere I wouldn’t be fully funded, so even my “safety” schools will have an acceptance rate of about 5%; that’s lower than Harvard Law School. I’m lucky to have a good job, and someone to split my living expenses with (and who supports my decision to undertake all this), but how would I ever manage if I didn’t?

It seems incredible to think of how many people are going through this same process, when I look at the expenses. I certainly hope it pays off.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Update from Down the Cape

Well I’m blogging once a week so far, so that’s better than my previous blog. Let’s see if I can keep it going.

This week we’re “down the Cape” on vacation. I have to admit, relaxing has been a lot harder than I thought it would be. There are so many tempting things to do, we have to make a real effort to NOT do. So far we’ve done a lot of driving, book shopping, and ice cream eating, but we have managed to spend a few hours reading or writing each day as well.

Like a lot of writers, I often fantasize about quitting my job, moving off into the woods and spending every day writing. Vacation is a good test of that ambition. Do I really want to spend my time writing books, or do I just want to buy books and eat ice cream? So far this week I’m all caught up on reading/commenting on classmate’s stories and just need to work on putting together something to send my writing group on Tuesday. I started a new story yesterday with a first line that I’d been carrying around in my head for a while – about a rich small town man obsessed with Weimeraner dogs. I plan to work on that more later today and to take another stab at the murderer love letter story I’ve been workshopping.

Next month the applications for schools will be available, so I had originally identified August for revising the stories in my writing sample. I actually feel pretty good about where my portfolio stands. The last few months of Grub Street classes have given me plenty of material to work with, and I have a much stronger understanding of the process of writing and revising than I did when I started out. For once in my life I’m not procrastinating, and it feels good.

Anyway, status update out of the way, here are a few of my favorite coffee shops and book stores on Cape Cod:

Coffee Shops:
The Daily Brew, Cataumet

Coffee Obsession, Falmouth

Titcomb's Bookstore, Sandwich

The Inkwell Bookstore, Falmouth

Yellow Umbrella Books, Chatham

Where the Sidewalk Ends, Chatham

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I rarely have symbolic dreams. For the most part I dream about boringly literal things off my to-do list like grocery shopping, filing, and doing laundry. Seriously. It’s dull. Every now and then I do get an action hero dream where I’m swimming into some Nazi-occupied cavern Lara Croft style or battling vampires in an old stone castle. Not symbolic, though, just fun. But last night I had a straight out of Freud symbolic dream.

In the dream I was waiting in a fertility clinic with Greg to find out if I was pregnant. At the start of the dream I was hoping I was. One of our friends was there (apparently working) and I said Hi and chatted a bit before I realized that it would be obvious to her why we were there, and that for good or bad we were outing our intentions. Then, I saw a woman struggling to control her child and I thought, wait, have I really thought this through? Suddenly I realized (oh dream self, you should’ve thought of this before) that if I was pregnant I would have to GIVE BIRTH to a baby. Now I was having serious second thoughts. Before I had a chance to do or say anything, the doctor’s door opened, and I woke up.

After I’d gotten over the horror of the whole birth thing (which, I know, is natural, how I got here, etc, but really is kind of barbaric.) I realized with some relief that my dream was probably not about actually being pregnant (although I did have a little tummy bump from some pizza I'd eaten right before bed), but instead was probably more about mfa school, and my mixed emotions on what I’m getting myself into.

Last night I had an off-night in my Grub class. I didn’t feel like I was adding much to the discussion and somehow everything I said just came out wrong. Work-shopping fiction isn’t always a wonderful experience. For every class where I feel on top of my game, it seems there’s always one that leaves me feeling like the slow kid in class. When I miss the intent of a story, or confuse plot points or characters, it’s embarrassing, and I worry that I’m hurting the writer. Every week we read and consider drafts of stories with no background information to tell us what the story is meant to achieve. We read and we provide feedback. While it’s often fun to see these completely fresh works, it’s also a more labor intensive job than reading a published story for pleasure. I spend hours each week reading the stories and writing my comments, but each person in class will only have their work reviewed twice, so if I lack focus one week, that’s 50% of the attention they’ll get from me. I feel bad about that.

On the way home from class I thought about the benefits and costs of this system. In an mfa program there would surely be times I would be exhausted, confused, worn out. It’s not a decision to take lightly. The biggest benefit of the Grub Street classes I’ve been taking, is that they’re giving me a taste of what that life is really like. I’m learning to make time for writing, reviewing, and commenting. I’m tempering my hopes and dreams with some of the frustrations that are inevitable. I’m making this decision with my eyes open.

So what I’m saying is despite the nightmare, I’m still on track to apply this Fall. Next Tuesday I may reconsider the greasy pizza right before bed, though.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

First Post

Well, here we are. Another blog. Is there anything more intimidating than the first few posts of a new blog? I’d rather just continue the old one, nicely padded with a few years of book reviews and pasta recipes. Unfortunately, the old one is also linked up to everyone and anyone I know, the supportive and the judgey alike. And, of course, it contains my famous New Years Anti-Resolutions for 2010: no blogging, no writing classes, no applying for an mfa, no big-ticket purchases, no diet/exercise goals, no savings goals, no travel, no … well everything I’ve been busy with since January 2, basically. Why is the moment I become absolutely sure I don’t want something always immediately followed by the moment that thing becomes my urgent goal? And why do I always think it’s a good idea to announce these things publicly?

So this is the spot I’ll be writing from for a while. For the most part I hope to document the process of applying for an mfa program this fall, but beyond that I’m also working to create a writing life for myself more generally. Given the high probability that I don’t get accepted anywhere, I hope my efforts this year will help me to get in the habit of writing and sharing my work.