In Honor of Black History Month…

As an avid reader, I almost always have my nose in a book. Sometimes I’ll be reading more than one book at once, reading a few chapters of one and then switching to the other for a few chapters. Despite my undying love for books, there are not too many books that affect me in such a way that they change my life.

However, The Known World by Edward P. Jones is one of the books that changed my life.

I had been introduced to Jones’s works through the Writing Program at JHU. In one of my fiction writing classes, I read “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” a short story from his collection Lost in the City. I aspired to write about Baltimore the way Jones wrote about his native Washington, DC.

It was during the fall of 2009 when I was in a fiction workshop that I got another introduction to Jones. I had submitted my first set of manuscript pages for workshop, and was nervous about the feedback I would get from my classmates and my instructor. I was stunned when my instructor pointed out, almost immediately, that the opening chapters of my historical novel reminded her of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Known World. I was floored! At the time, I had heard of the book, but had not yet read it. I ordered the book with the intention of starting it while on Thanksgiving break.

From the first page, the opening paragraph, the first sentence, I was hooked. Jones’s gorgeous prose and compelling characters drew me into a world I never knew existed. Without giving too much of the plot away to those who have yet to read The Known World, this novel is about former slave Henry Townsend who becomes a slave owner in fictional Manchester County, Virginia, and the people on both sides of slavery. There were many sentences, chapters and moments in the book that swept me off my feet and took my breath away. To have my own unpolished writing compared to his was a tremendous compliment, and at the same time quite intimidating.

I started The Known World that Thanksgiving weekend, and finished it a few days before Christmas. The ending was so breathtakingly beautiful that I wept, my tears staining the last pages. Everything in the book made sense and was tied up, but not in a contrived way. It was pure and logical. Intrigued by the man and this book, I scoured the internet for anything I could find. In one interview before he won the Pulitzer, Jones said that he had the book floating in his head for several years. Once he left his job as the editor of a tax newsletter, he wrote the novel (it’s 388 pages in paperback) in three months. However, the ending he already written. He said, in fact, that most of his story endings, he knows and writes ahead of time.

I revisited The Known World several times trying to deconstruct elements of it to learn from the master. The story of The Known World isn’t told in linear fashion. There are several secondary storylines running concurrently with the main one. And there is an omniscient narrator hovering overhead informing the reader of every single detail down to the thoughts of each character. When I started working on my novel, I had an omniscient narrator, too. I was dismayed when my instructor and classmates shot it down. “It cheapens the experience,” my instructor said. “It’s a device used by lazy writers.” Well, Edward P. Jones isn’t lazy. I tried rewriting portions of my novel using a third-person narrator, but there were details that they couldn’t share because there were things they couldn’t know. Only my omniscient narrator – who was about to be laid off by my instructor – would know! I kept plugging away attempting to restructure my novel using the third-person narrator, which stifled me greatly.

Imagine my delight and surprise when my workshop instructor called me a year later to tell me she had invited Edward P. Jones to speak to her class. She asked me if I’d like to sit in. I told her I was already there.

Meeting Jones in person was a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life. It is not every day that a reader gets to me his or her favorite author and engage them in a conversation about craft. Armed with his books and a writing journal, I was prepared to ask questions and take notes.

There was so much that I learned from Edward P. Jones on that evening. It affirmed me as a writer to be in his presence and relate to his thoughts and perspective on writing. I strive to tell my story as well as the stories of our people and the culture. Edward P. Jones is a master at that. For Black History Month, I will be re-reading The Known World to commemorate our history, our heritage, our culture and our literature.

“Fiction,” Jones said, “[is] adding wonderful sauce to all of the lies so the reader will be able to swallow.”

That sounds delicious.

Poets & Writers: Rank & File

Poets & Writers MFA NationThose of you plugged into the MFA world – whether it be as a current or prospective student or faculty member of a graduate writing program – you’re well aware of the annual MFA program rankings by the fine folks over at Poets & Writers. I tend not to read too much into the rankings mainly because they are highly subjective in nature.

The 2012 MFA and PhD program rankings created a firestorm in the MFA and graduate creative writing community. (If you ask me, it’s about time…but I digress.) P&W’s editors drew fire from almost 200 faculty from various writing programs across the country. Those faculty members issued an open letter to the publication criticizing the process, the criteria and the results. A press release issued on behalf of the 190 creative writing faculty members, called Poets & Writers‘ ranking system “specious” and “disingenuous”.

At issue is how P&W came up with the criteria for ranking schools, and the small sample of participants (readers of the Creative Writing MFA Blog) polled for the survey. The faculty members take umbrage at the notion that P&W did not factor in “faculty or writing reputations” in determining their rankings. Mary Gannon, P&W’s editorial director countered in a lengthy response that, “faculty quality is too complex to assess.”

I view this “war of words” between P&W and the faculty with particular interest. I recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University, a school with not one, but two graduate writing programs. There is the M.A. in Writing Program, a rigorous, part-time program (from which I graduated this past spring). Then there are the Writing Seminars, a prestigious, full-time, two-year MFA program – which ranks 17th on this year’s list. I aspired to get into the Writing Seminars, but the program is full-time and highly competitive, so I went for the next best thing. Ultimately I want to teach writing, and in order to do so, I need at least an MFA to be taken seriously. But many MFA programs are full-time, and that won’t work for a working girl like me. So I’ve been looking at part-time MFA programs in the region, and have found a couple that I’m considering seriously and applying to now.

Did I look at P&W’s past MFA rankings in my search for an MFA program? Sure. (I should note here that P&W also ranks part-time and low-residency programs, too.) Did the rankings influence my decision to consider or avoid certain programs? Not really. I had my own criteria (location, diversity of faculty and students, good restaurants near campus – hey, a girl’s gotta eat) to factor into my decision. I simply used P&W’s rankings as a springboard in my own decision-making process.

While both P&W and the faculty members at odds with the publication make valid points, I find myself siding with the faculty. Using such an exclusive pool of individuals (readers of a particular blog) as the basis for this survey hardly presents an opportunity to get objective, wide-ranging data. Why didn’t P&W post a survey on its website or print it in its publication? Surely people like me would have seen in and responded. I’ve visited the Creative Writing MFA Blog on a number of occasions as well as P&W’s Speakeasy Forum. I’ve read the opinions and advice from other MFA applicants, current and former students. And to be quite honest, most of what I read was – in large part – questions, opinions and criticisms of programs in P&W’s past top rankings. So rather than reading comments about the same 15-20 schools that everyone was interested in, I decided to take the list and do my own research on a few. In the end, the schools that I am considering now for my MFA aren’t even on P&W’s top 50 for 2012. But I know based on what I’ve read about these programs, and recommendations from some faculty at JHU, these are excellent programs with great faculty and reputations.

Judging by the flurry of activity on P&W’s Comments page, MFA-gate isn’t going away anytime soon. I’ll have more thoughts on this in the coming days, that’s for sure. But in the meantime, I’ve got writing samples to gather and a statement of purpose that just won’t finish writing itself.  And right now, that ranks #1 on my priority list.

A Story Is Born

Columbus Day 2009. I was just a month into my fourth semester of writing classes as Hopkins, a few days into a new job and I had less than 30 days until my wedding. I was trying my best to stay calm and organized, despite the growing frenzy that was brewing. There was still a lot to do for the wedding. The DIY bride in me was not willing to surrender the creative projects to my very capable wedding planner. Add to that the pressure of landing a new job…a government job where everything had a form and an acronym to boot.

On top of all of the real life pressures tugging at me, I had to churn out an endless stream of fresh writing and critiques for my fiction workshop at school. I was able to take an unpolished piece from a previous class, brush it up and submit it for workshop the first time around, but this time, I had to come up with something new. The clock was ticking. I had workshop on Saturday, and I didn’t have a word on the page. With just a few days (literally a few hours) to work with, I wasted no time putting something on the page. I pulled something from recent memory, and started shaping it into a story. I didn’t map it out ahead of time, or create an outline. I just started writing with reckless abandon. Characters just sprung into action. Scenes unfolded as quickly as the words came to mind. I didn’t put much into the piece in terms of consciousness. Looking back on my first draft of the story, I honestly don’t remember writing much of what was there. It just happened.

Then I turned the story in for workshop. My classmates had a week to read, re-read and then write a critique of my story detailing their opinions of what was working, what wasn’t and how I could revise it. I was prepared for a lot of comments about a lack of structure, a lack of focus, or about the fact that I wrote the piece in present tense.

What was said and what actually happened shocked me.

My classmates commented on how intimate and gripping the story was. Someone used the word “organic” to describe the writing. My professor sat at the front of the room, nodding and agreeing with much of what was being said. Then they delved into what needed work. Of course, the story was floundering in places. It was a rough draft. Of course, I had a lot of crying, and dashes of hyperbolic writing in places. I’m an emotional person and it tends to show up in my writing. There were other things that were mentioned as areas of potential improvement, but overall, my classmates like the piece.

The funny thing about writing workshops is that the person being workshopped is much like a pedestrian at the corner of a busy intersection watching rush-hour traffic. You have somewhere to go, you’ve got to get across, but you have to wait until the light changes. That’s how I felt watching my classmates dissect my writing, trying to figure out if my story was based on a real event (it was), or if it was part of a larger work (it wasn’t).

After class was over, my professor asked me to stay for a few because she needed to talk to me. I was nervous because a few weeks prior she had asked the same thing, but that time it was to admonish me for being late to class two weeks in a row. Commuting from Baltimore to DC even on the weekend was dicey as a bad accident or a DC protest could put the breaks on everything. I wasn’t late this particular week. In fact, I was early. I was nervous and embarrased watching my classmates stream out of the room and into the halls to enjoy the balance of their Saturday afternoon.

With everyone gone, and the door closed, she looked at me and said, “I don’t say this to everyone that comes into my class, but I have to say this to you: You have it.”

I was floored, stunned, thinking I knew what she was saying, but then I wasn’t so sure.

“I read your story the first time through and was blown away,” she said.

Blown away by a first draft? A rough draft? This wasn’t even my best writing.

She keenly sensed that I was just framing something on the page and that it wasn’t a part of a larger work (as in a novel or something), but she said, “it needs to be. This belongs in a novel.” She told me my characters — three generations of women coping together through a crisis — resonated with her. She told me my work could go places. She said I was “publishable.” I melted. I’d been called lots of things, but never “publishable” before.

After our discussion which seemed to go on for ever, I floated out of the room, onto the elevator and onto the streets of DC. Two large epiphanies unfolded before me that day. I was affirmed as a writer, by a writer, someone who went through the same writing program at Hopkins and went on to get a publishing deal with Random House. I also accepted the fact that the story that spilled onto the page was much bigger than I was willing to see before. The story had been there all the time; in fact, I had been running from it. However, a room full of talented and accomplished writers saw its merit and gave me the push I needed to acknowledge what had been there all along.