2017, Archives, January 2017, The MFA Years

The Novel Workshop

On Tuesday, we had our first meeting of “The Novel Workshop,” a two-semester class intended for graduate students to write, as you may have guessed, a novel! I’m in a unique position in that I have written a novel before, but I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing—every novel is different, and I’ve heard many an author mention the challenge of writing a second novel after the first, to make novel-writing a practice rather than a single endeavor.

I’m excited for the workshop. As far as I know, workshops designated specifically to writing a novel rather than short fiction are somewhat unusual among MFA programs. And I know what makes me most nervous about the workshop is probably a net positive—I tend to be someone writes sporadically, who does not keep to a schedule, who produces a lot but in intermittent starts and spurts. But the expectations of this workshop won’t allow for such. We are to produce 40,000 words by the end of our semester. My first novel was short, about 60,000 words in total, and I wrote the initial draft over the course of about 2 years (with only about 50 pages over the first 6 months as my thesis at Brown). So the pacing here is vastly different, the expectations of generativity much higher.

In addition, the novel I want to write now—one that takes place in Los Alamos and Roswell and involves the possibilities of spontaneous combustion, time travel, nationwide conspiracies, etc.—requires substantially more research than my first novel did, in which I delved into a few scientific concepts like genetic engineering and cloning but not much more than that. So how am I going to find the time to do that research and produce a halfway decent 40,000 words by the end of the semester? I don’t know. I have a schedule. I have to have a schedule.

Ultimately, the schedule is key, and I think figuring that out, how to be consistent, how to be accountable, will be useful not only for the novel, but also for my life in the MFA program in general. I’ve struggled much more with depression, anxiety, and loneliness in Tuscaloosa than I had before coming here, and I know that by better structuring my free time (and perhaps getting out of my apartment to write, actively going to a coffee shop at designated hours), it’ll likely have positive effects both in getting writing done on the novel and hopefully in feeling greater comfort in the slower, more solitary lifestyle that is Tuscaloosa versus Los Angeles.

I’ll admit that while a part of me wishes the MFA were almost over, that I had chosen a 2-year program rather than a 3-year program (or in my case, a 3 to 4 year program), I would absolutely advocate for that extra time as you start receiving acceptances in the next month or two. If everything goes according to plan, by the end of 3 years, I’ll have finished a draft of a short story collection, a novel, the pilot episode of a TV show, and a handful of strong personal essays. The MFA can be challenging. It can take you places you’d never live (or frankly want to live) otherwise. But especially in these next few years, with Trump as president, having a protected space in which to create art—there’s no parallel to that.

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