LISA CIARFELLA: How did you decide upon an MFA degree and then how did you choose your program?
STEVE WEDDLE: I was completing my master’s degree in English literature at a graudate school in Kansas.I had been writing poetry, as we all do, for years. I’d been the editor of the literary magazine at my undergraduate school and continuted to send out poems, having a few poems published in magazines that probably no longer exist. As I finished my master’s degree, I knew I wanted to go on and had a choice whether to pursue a PhD or MFA. I picked poetry because I liked the idea of making the thing people talked about instead of talking about something other people made. Seems a silly notion now, but there it is.
My two top choices were the MFA program at University of Memphis and the one at Louisiana State University. Both programs were wonderful, but I ended up at LSU because that was my home state, so it was a bit of a return of the exile. Also, having the chance to study with Rodger Kamenetz, Dave Smith, Andrei Codrescu, and Vance Bourjaily was too tempting to pass up. So I went to LSU to write poems, which I did. Eventually, those poems became COUNTRY HARDBALL.
Neither degree has been a golden ticket for anything I’ve done. The biggest benefit I got from the MFA was finding a group of like-minded people who were passionate about the same things I was. You think anyone at my office today wants to talk about whether Gordon Lish’s influence is what made Raymond Carver a great writer? About whether opening with straight dialog is a risk? About open endings in short stories? Heck, no. But the people I went through the MFA program with me STILL DO. I’ve got a dozen or so friends from that time who are still adamant about stories.Essentially, we created a network of readers and writers that we’re still involved with. It’s pretty damn glorious.
LISA CIARFELLA: What was best about the MFA program?
STEVE WEDDLE: One of the best things about workshops, for me, was being forced to write each week and read each week and think and comment every week. You’ve got a dozen people in class who can tell you “This didn’t work for me” or “I got kind of lost at this point.” That was helpful to me, because I knew how far I could push things.You get an immediate response. Now that’s I’ve got some miles on me, of course, I don’t give two shits what other people think while I’m writing the thing. A workshop at this point, at least for me, would be crippling. I don’t want immediate feedback. I want to be left alone until I’m done, for the most part. Yet, when I was in the MFA program, having that immediate feedback was crucial. No one said “This doesn’t work. You should do THIS thing” to me. Or, if they did, I probably ignored them. I found the workshops less prescriptive in terms of what I should do and more descriptive in terms of what worked and what didn’t.
Also, listening to how other people read my work was instructive in that it gave me an outsider’s perspective I wouldn’t normally have access to. And being able to talk in and out of class with other writers about how they write and the manner in which they sculpted their own work was great.
STEVE: Part of what you learn by reading good novels is pacing, as much as structure itself. I’d written three novels prior to COUNTRY HARDBALL, so I had in mind the way to pace and structure a novel — the weaving subplots through, the small questions and answers on the way to the big solution, carrying momentum from one chapter to the next. In writing COUNTRY HARDBALL, I was interested in turning all of that around. Instead of tying togther all the threads to make a linear rope that would carry the book, I wanted to weave the threads in and out of each other to make more of a quilt, which makes sense to me as COUNTRY HARDBALL is more a book about a community in the south,
My experience with MFA classes — both directly as a student and indirectly in talking with students and professors — is that teaching the structure of the writing itself is a place where the programs excel, whereas teaching the structure of the writer’s life is more a problem. Saying whether an opening works is easy enough in a seminar. Should I combine these characters? Should I move this reveal sooner in the development? These sorts of things easy to talk about, easy to visualize. So, at least in what I’ve seen and heard, MFA programs aren’t missing anything when it comes to teaching the writing.
LISA: Regarding the structure of writing that was covered, could you describe some of the writing prompts and class practice excercises on, say, plot development, flashbacks, varying timelines, dialogue, subplots, etc? Were there text books that guided this material?
STEVE: The only specific writing prompts I recall were for specific forms in my Forms of Poetry class. I’d wager that’s the last time I’ve written a sestina.
We never worked on plot, flashbacks, timelines, or anything of that nature as an assignment. Most of the workshops I took had very little in terms of “Do this exercise,” as I recall. We were expected to come to the program with the basic skills and use the MFA program to refine those skills. At least, that’s how I remember it 20 years later.
Where I think many MFA programs fall short is in teach the writer how to live the writer’s life. How to write a query letter. How to string together freelance assignments to pay the rent, while continuing to devote six hours a day to the novel. The actual work OUTSIDE the work is where I think more MFA programs should focus. I’m worried that MFA programs find The Writer’s Life kind of thing to be too proletariat, too non-academic. Of course, when I’ve talked with teachers and students outside the structure of the classes, I’ve found great help. That said. in the way that high schools should spend as much time teaching you to balance your checkbook as they do teaching you the kings and queens of foreignland, MFA programs should teach you how to live as a writer outside of the classroom walls. For me, that’s more the sort of structure they tend to miss.
THANK YOU, STEVE!
MORE MFA series coming soon. LES EDGERTON (MFA), SAM WIEBE (MA), JOSH STALLINGS (BOOTSTRAPPIN’ IT), Elaine Ash (through the TV screen), weigh-ins from ANTHONY NEIL SMITH and MORE!!!!