"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Last week I talked about my conflicted feelings about my alma mater the University of Alaska Fairbanks being included on this year’s Huffington Post "Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs" list. I was thrilled to see that UAF was being acknowledged as underrated, yet at the same time, I felt ashamed of my excitement because I’ve always frowned on the very idea of ranking programs.

Seth Abramson, I assume the Seth Abramson who wrote the article to which I was responding, commented on my post, but for some reason the comment does not appear on the actual page. I’m not sure why. I don’t know if he deleted the comment after making it or if Blogger is up to its old, bratty tricks again (I have had so much trouble with the comments feature of Blogger lately . . .). At any rate, Abramson, whom I readily admit is far more of an expert on this stuff than I, made some excellent points and offered some valuable information, so I thought I’d include some of what he talked about here to give a more complete view of the issue. In case it was Abramson himself and not some Blogger glitch that caused his comment to be deleted, I won’t reproduce his argument word-for-word.

First of all, Abramson had the foresight to direct me to the Poets & Writers article that details their methodology in putting together their ranking list, which I should have linked to in my blog post last week but didn’t—sorry about that. Much of my frustration over the ranking list last year came, actually, from reading about their methodology. (For example, I was frustrated by the assumption that any program that does not have a good website with complete, detailed information about their program must not be providing good funding or be highly selective. I understand the P & W logic here—if the program was highly selective and funded a large percentage of their students, why wouldn’t they say so on their website?—but I think the logic fails to grasp that some programs simply have very, very, very bad websites, and they don’t include information on their sites that they should.)

Still, while the article does admit that “Four of the nine full-residency MFA rankings are based [on] a survey of a large sample of current MFA applicants,” there are still five additional ranking categories which are actually based on “hard data”: “funding, selectivity, fellowship placement, job placement, and student-faculty ratio.” Abramson suggested that the P & W ranking list does seem to acknowledge that different applicants have different needs, and that’s a fair point. On top of that, the P & W article freely admits that the data collected to prepare the report represents “publicly known data rather than an ordering of all extant data.” The rankings are most definitely flawed, but P & W knows and admits this. They did the best they could with the information they had.

Perhaps a more important point that Abramson made is that the rankings are valuable partially because they provide a list of what programs are even out there to potential applicants. Though not all programs make it into the print article, the full list is available online, and anyway, Abramson believes that MFA applicants take the time to do more research than just reviewing one ranking list. This is very true. I knew a lot of people who were applying for MFA programs last year, and while to my knowledge every single one of them closely considered the P & W rankings, all of them also did a substantial amount of additional research before they solidified their list of where to apply. I will add, though, that most of them, when narrowing their lists of which programs to look into more closely, didn’t include many low-ranked programs on those lists, and to my knowledge they didn’t include any programs that didn’t make P & W’s top 100, like UAF.

The strongest point that Abramson made in defense of ranking lists was that the programs themselves use these lists to make a case for more funding from their universities and to generally improve the areas where they appear to be lacking. I hadn’t thought about this at all, but it’s an excellent point and probably very true. Maybe, for example, a program that does provide the majority of its students with full-funding and is very selective but doesn’t have a great website advertising this information might take its low ranking on the list as a good sign that it’s time to put a little more energy into marketing to potential applicants. It doesn’t mean that there was ever anything wrong with the program itself, but such a program might receive more applicants, allowing it to become even more selective, if it drew up a new and better marketing plan or garnered more funding from its university.

Anyway, since nobody but myself had the benefit of reading Abramson’s response to my post, I wanted to address some of these points and be a bit more even-handed about the issue. Abramson has made me rethink the way I view rankings. I still don’t buy that a program’s placement on a ranking list absolutely correlates to its worth and quality as a program; however, I can see, now, the value of these sorts of lists. And anyway, as Abramson said to me, P & W’s ranking list is still very much in its infancy, and surely the methodology and readily available data will change and get better as the ranking system itself matures.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

This week the Huffington Post released their new list of the top 25 underrated creative writing MFA programs, and I was thrilled to see that the University of Alaska Fairbanks made the cut. It felt to me like very well-deserved (and long overdue) recognition for the program that is so close to my heart.

My reaction to the news, though, was a little shameful considering that I’ve always shunned creative writing MFA ranking lists, believing that they’re mostly self-perpetuating (the Poets & Writers list, for example, which is the definitive ranking list people turn to when researching and applying to CW MFA programs, bases its numbers largely on the opinions of people who are currently applying for MFA programs, many or most of whom used last year’s P & W rankings to help them formulate those opinions.)

Still, I have to admit that part of my distaste for these sorts of rankings results from the fact that UAF, which I know is an excellent program from my own personal experience, is usually overlooked. It’s a bit spiteful and jealous, I know. But the problem with ranking things is that, just as somebody’s got to come out on top, somebody—many somebodies—have got to come out somewhere in the middle or on the bottom, and it isn’t always true that the “top” programs are any better than the rest.

It often feels to me like any program that doesn’t make it to the top 25 (or at least top 50) gets unfairly shunned and ignored by MFA applicants (and many others in the CW world), when really, probably most (who knows, maybe even all) accredited CW MFA programs are damn good, absolutely brimming with top-notch writers, both faculty and students alike. UAF is a great case in point: the P & W list ranked them 105 last year out of 130 (although UAF did receive an honorable mention for funding). Programs ranked that low don’t even appear in the list printed in the magazine—you have to go to the website and click “Additional Rankings” to even see the rankings below the top 50.

Yet my alma mater, as I’ve said, is an excellent program. This is not cognitive dissonance talking; if I’d gotten a bum deal from going to UAF, I’d say so. In fact, I’d probably spend far too much time ruminating on what a waste of time it had been going there, what a bad decision I’d made (I could, after all, have gone somewhere else. UAF wasn’t the only school that accepted me, but it was my top choice program from the beginning). But the truth is, the time I spent at UAF was, to date, the best three years of my life, and certainly the most fruitful and instructive. I entered the program naïve and lazy; I left the program having completed two book-length works, one of which was accepted for publication just one year after I graduated. The other students in the program, and the faculty, were all incredible writers, and many of them have had significant publication success. It’s clearly a good program, but at spot 105, it’s overlooked by most everyone.

So yeah, I’m excited about this small bit of recognition, but I know, at the same time, that a spot on any of these lists doesn’t mean much. The truth is, I wish rankings didn’t exist at all. I don’t see how we can reasonably say that certain programs are better across the board than others, when really, personal needs, style preferences, etc. all play an important role in finding the right program for you. UAF was definitely the right program for me, whereas Iowa probably wouldn’t have been (not that I would have stood a chance of getting in, nor would I have wasted my money in applying). Rankings, then, bring the value of my degree down a bit, since people are often quick to assume that a program, ranked so low isn’t a very good program. It’s harder for me to find a job than someone who graduated from a higher ranked school, and it’s harder for me to find an agent, too. Even so, I’m proud to have graduated from UAF, and I don’t regret having gone there one bit. Underrated it most definitely is, and, while the same is probably true of several other programs that didn’t make the Huffington Post’s list, it’s nice to see someone out there acknowledging it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

On Friday as I was driving my husband, Damien, to work, the song “Guitar” by Cake came on my iPod. I’ve always liked the slow, rhythmic bitter-sweetness of the song, but I’ve never paid much attention to the lyrics before: “If I threw my guitar out the window, so far down, would I start to regret it, or would I smile and watch it slowly fall?” It always seemed borderline nonsensical to me—of course you shouldn’t throw your guitar out the window, John. It’s just a bit of silliness, I always thought. Just something strange to sing that matches the rhythm of the music.

I guess yesterday I was in just the right state of mind that I could listen to this song I’ve heard hundreds—who knows, maybe thousands—of times and suddenly be moved in a new way by the question posed by the very simple lyrics: if I gave up on my art, this thing I’ve been so devoted to for so long, would I miss it, or would it turn out that I’d actually be happier that way?

Those lyrics kept running through my head the rest of the day. They seemed to pinpoint a question I’d been carrying around deep inside for several months now, a question I didn’t even want to admit to myself I was seriously asking: what would happen if I just gave up on writing? What if I just decided, you know, I had a good run, got some good publications, even published a book. I’m done. “Would I,” as the lyrics wonder, “start to regret it, or would I smile” as everything I’ve worked so hard for falls away? Would giving up on being a writer be a sort of relief?

There’s that famous quote attributed to Lawrence Kasdan: “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” Of course, when you’re in a good groove, when you’re really feeling it, writing doesn’t feel like homework at all. It feels like magic, like being part of something much bigger and more important than yourself. And it doesn’t feel like work at all because the words, they just come to you. You don’t know from where. Later, when you read them, you don’t feel like you could have written them. They’re too good. All you did was transcribe what some magical being must have been whispering in your ear.

But on the days where it doesn’t just come to you, it certainly does feel like homework, and “having homework every night for the rest of your life” by choice feels a bit insane, does it not? You could relax and watch a movie, or you could play a video game, take a nap. You could do whatever you want to do, but you choose to write, even when it feels pointless, even when it seems unlikely that anyone will ever read it, even when you yourself can tell as you’re writing it how terrible this particular draft is. You do it anyway. That’s what makes you a true writer, not your publication history, not your awards, not whether or not you have any loyal readers or whether anyone besides yourself even gets what you’re trying to do. What makes you a writer is the fact that you write. Period.

But the other truth is that you weren’t born a writer; nobody was. You became a writer by choice. You imposed this on yourself. And knowing that can make the question posed by the Cake song an extremely serious one during the times where writing does feel like work.

Sometimes I think I would be happier if I wasn’t a writer. Wouldn’t it be nice, I ask myself now and then, if I could just focus entirely on the baby and not have to worry about how much writing I got done today?  But the truth is, I think it’s too late for that now. I’ve come too far, put too much work into it to just give up. My answer to the question is complicated, because I think I would do both: I probably would “smile and watch it slowly fall,” but at the same time, I think I would also “regret it.” Not having the self-imposed pressure would be a relief, but I would feel lost, I’m sure, broken, like I’m just drifting, and those feelings would overpower the pleasure I would feel at taking my life back.

Either way, it’s interesting to fully recognize that writing tortures me as much as it eases my way. It lessens the pain of living, while creating its own new kind of agony. It frees me from the boundaries put upon me by my life, my times, my society, my own sense of identity, while building its own prison walls around me. Flimsy walls, from which I could easily escape.

But I don’t.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A while ago, on an episode of Science Friday, Charlie Bamforth, author of Beer Is Proof God Loves Us: Reaching for the Soul of Beer and Brewing, said, “Some people say to me, ‘I don’t like beer.’ That’s nonsense. You just haven’t found the right beer for you yet.” This is the way I feel when someone—a student, usually, since I mostly only know academics and writers—tells me they don’t like reading. There are so many different types of books out there, so many different styles and topics and genres and techniques—I just don’t buy that there could be anyone alive who is mentally capable of reading but for whom there is simply no type of writing that would appeal.

But I think that the reason why so very many people don’t believe they like reading is a result of the sort of books that the average person has been exposed to. Consider this: the typical person, who comes from a non-reading family (by non-reading, I don’t mean illiterate, but a family where the parents don’t read for pleasure, and so neither do the kids) for the most part only has easy access to two types of books: canonical classics, which they’re forced to read (or are supposed to read anyway, though many of them just skim or SparksNotes them) in school, and whatever books are being published (and highly publicized) by the major New York publishing houses.

Let’s take the two types one at a time. First, we have the canonical classics. Good books, surely, but often dated. The language is rarely the sort of language we use today, and the writing style matches the style that was popular at the time. These narrators and characters don’t think or speak the way the contemporary reader does, and the plots and settings of these books often leave little to relate to from a modern perspective. Our society is a different society altogether. There are often underlying themes that are still relevant today, but the immediate themes and concerns of the books are usually so far off from what a modern reader—especially a modern young adult, the main group of people being forced to read these books—can relate to that the book, no matter how good it is, might seem tedious to someone who hasn’t yet built up an appreciation for reading.

Then we have what I’ll classify as popular literature, the stuff being put out and heavily marketed by the major publishers. This includes the bevvy of trendy memoirs that come out every year, the vast array of genre fiction that’s out there, and the stuff that bookstores usually classify as “general fiction” because the term “literary” probably seems too stuffy but there are no wizards or robots or ghosts or muscly men baring their chests on the front cover, so “general” seems the only word that really fits. There are examples of good, well written books in all of these popular categories, but the problem is, the good ones—the ones that are actually carefully crafted with attention to detail and language use, with unpredictable plots and multi-dimensional characters—are far, far fewer than the ones that seem to have been sloppily thrown together by some schmuck who doesn’t really know how to write.

You’ve probably read enough of those types of books in your time—I know I have. Those books that are so predictable and cliché, that use way too much exposition (exposition is so boring to read, don’t you think?) and don’t draw vivid enough images when describing scenes. The characters are one-dimensional; the story is bland; the writing is limp and lifeless on the page.

I got lucky at a young age. I got lucky because my parents read for pleasure, so I saw that reading for pleasure is a normal thing to do. Then, in middle school, I stumbled across The Catcher in the Rye, and I never looked back. But what about the people who don’t get lucky enough to find their Salinger, or whoever will really speak to them, amongst the mass of popular books that they have easy access to? Since there are far, far more crappy books on the bookstore and library shelves, the odds are that many people only ever pick up and have a go at the bad stuff. Having only ever read bad books and unrelatable canonical books, is it any wonder that so many people get it in their heads that they just don’t like reading, and, alas, give up?

If I had met Charlie Bamforth before having listened to his Science Friday interview, I would probably have told him, “I just don’t really like beer.” But the truth is, he’s probably right. There probably is a beer out there for me. I just haven’t had enough exposure to beer to have found it, and once I decided I didn’t like beer, I stopped trying it and closed the possibility of me ever finding the “right” one for me. The same thing is happening, I believe, to many people with reading.

I could argue that partially to blame are the major publishing houses, who keep putting out crap because they know it will sell (and please keep in mind that the fact that a book sells well does not mean that people are actually reading and enjoying it, as those of us who have mountains of books we’ve bought and haven’t yet gotten around to reading can attest to). I could say, too, that partially to blame are the teachers who only assign their students to read things their students are not likely to engage with, and partially to blame are the parents who don’t understand that just reading to your kids isn’t enough; you need to set the example and let them see that you enjoy reading for your own pleasure, too. But the whole truth is that this is not really a problem that can be fixed easily. Maybe it’s too late to fix it at all. Maybe TV and video games will always be so easy that most people will never take the time to search for books that they might enjoy reading. Who knows? All I can say is that I think it’s sad, and I wish more people could experience what I do when I get fully immersed in a really good book. I feel bad for them, feel like they’re missing out on something.

Is this how beer drinkers feel about me? Hmm.