Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Archive for May, 2011

The First Year: Full of Realizations for Riddhi

Posted by Riddhi Parekh On May - 31 - 2011

 The First Year: Full of Realizations for RiddhiThe first year of the MFA program at The New School was full of realizations. Moving away from home, halfway across the world from Bombay (also known as Mumbai) to New York City had a lot more in store for me than I could imagine. The last eight or nine months introduced me to a whole new world. One full of more books than I was used to seeing on my bedside table, weekly meetings with inspiring teachers, life experiences lined with lessons and a wonderful bunch of classmates that encouraged (and continue to encourage) me to reach my goal as a writer.

Before this program, I spent over five years as a journalist, writing feature and news stories for a newspaper. This has largely shaped my habit of writing—perhaps negatively. I always write closer to a deadline, a habit that I believe stemmed from my days as a journalist. But writing a book or a story, as a novice, with no agent or publishing house monitoring my progress, is not half as easy as I imagined. I always knew the stories were flowing through me, but this MFA program has taught me the importance of setting deadlines for myself. With many of my peers from class already published or well on their path to it, the stakes have gotten really high. I know that it is up to me first to churn out something meaningful, and this will not come without practice.

I’ve set myself a lofty goal for the summer, to read a book a week and write a hundred pages of my novel. I consider the second part of my goal lofty for a few reasons:

1. I’m still unlearning my journalistic ways, of waking up hours before a deadline and spewing words and research onto a page.

2. I’m spending the summer in India, where for the first time in many years, I’m on holiday: I don’t have to wake up and make myself breakfast. I don’t have to bother with the dishes or laundry. I don’t have to really lift a finger AND I do not have a class of attentive readers picking on every word I have penned and helping me with their feedback.

While many of my classmates (Mary especially) said that the target of writing a hundred pages through three months is rather easy (I simply had to get on it like it was a job) I think the challenge is going to test me. I hope to accomplish this goal through the summer and be thick in the game when I go back to NYC in the fall of 2011, ready to be workshopped for the next two semesters.

Photo courtesy of WVS: The Technical Writing Company

 

Exclusively Chloe 1 200x300 Whats In a Name? Guest Blogger Jon Yang Discusses Asian Character Names I have an admission to make.  Sometimes when I’m reading books with ethnic names, I get a little lost.  I know, it’s ridiculous.  I’d like to think the problem is personal, as I had a tough time trying to differentiate between the various Jose Arcadios in One Hundred Years of Solitude too.  But oftentimes with unfamiliar names, I get tripped up — especially if they sound similar.  If it ain’t a Joe, Emily, or Michael, my mind sometimes glazes over and it takes some effort to recall who I just read about.  Of course I have no problem remembering sci-fi or fantasy names like “Ender” or “Raistlin,” so what gives?

For my book about a Chinese girl adopted by Hollywood celebrities, I gave the main character my sister’s Chinese name, “Shao-Chi.”  My character’s Americanized name, and the one used throughout the majority of the book, would be “Chloe-Grace” but I definitely wanted to give her a Chinese name to reflect her background.

In another nod to a friend of mine, I named Shao-Chi’s biological brother, “Hong-Yin.”  For most of the early drafts of Exclusively Chloe, Hong-Yin was kept as “Hong” and there was no thought to changing it.  However, as the book neared completion, my publisher suggested that maybe we should go with an Americanized name.  I understood where they were coming from.  “Henry” was more familiar and theoretically easier to remember than “Hong.”  I agreed pretty quickly.

Looking back on it now however, I’d have given more thought to keeping the brother’s name “Hong” because it says something that the character would choose to retain his Chinese name.  Being an immigrant myself, I know that you move here and decide at some point how the rest of America will initially receive you.  My passport, birth certificate, and official documents all have a different name than the one I use publicly.  None of those pieces of paper say “Jonathan,” and I’m always carrying around two sets of I.D. when traveling.  Having my character keep his Chinese name would have meant a lifetime of “Hong-Yin, as in Hong Kong?” comments reflected back at him and possible mispronunciations and misspellings.  It would have shaped him, however subtly.  I think I would have chosen that for him, in retrospect.

Naming your characters is always a challenge, and thinking about giving them an Americanized name versus a Sanjeev, a Cleotis, an Ameer, a Chhomthyda, is something that looms as its own challenge.  As a reader and writer, I want to make myself more aware of the decisions involved and remain true to the intent of the character and the author who did the same.

J.A.Yang has slummed it in the valley with the Wakefield twins; slumber partied with Huey, Dewey and Louie; joined Krakow in stalking Angela; and climbed every mountain with the Von Trapps.Originally from San Diego, he’s lived and traveled the world (okay, not all of it) in pursuit of that most elusive of targets — a herd of unicorns. He’s authored and published a few books, written for online and offline publications, and maintained a variety of popular blogs on subjects ranging from movies and technology to personal stories and amateur musings. He’s busy promoting his second book, a fiction novel for teens, and is hard at work on his third one. You can reach him at digitaljon(at)gmail.com. He is BFF with his iPhone so he should answer promptly.

Photo courtesy of Speak.

49628 hi ThisIsTeen postcard 214x300 This is Teen Live: Libba Bray, Maggie Stiefvater and Meg Cabot on Why They Write for TeensYesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the This is Teen Live event in New York City, featuring the amazing YA authors Libba Bray, Meg Cabot and Maggie Stiefvater. I also had the distinct pleasure of taking several of the students from the school where I am a librarian to meet the authors. These students are readers — they are required to finish at least 50 books a year, and many of them have doubled that — and to them meeting the authors whose names adorn the books in their library was akin to meeting movie stars.

The event was very successful. The Scholastic Store was full to the brim with avid teen and adult readers. The authors were entertaining and honest in their answers and the Q and A was brief and to-the-point.

The highlight of the experience for me was when one of our students was called on to ask a question, not merely because it was fun to see him with a microphone in front of these authors, but because of their honest and powerful answers. He asked, “What do you hope teens will learn from your books?”

beauty queens 98x150 This is Teen Live: Libba Bray, Maggie Stiefvater and Meg Cabot on Why They Write for TeensLibba Bray, author of the newly published Beauty Queens and many other books for young adults, fielded this question first with an answer that I thought was truly inspire. In short, she said: “Whatever they want.” She pointed out that she is writing to tell a story, not to teach teens about the world. She wants all of her readers — teens and adults alike — to feel that they own the book at the end.

I was so blown away but the honesty and respect in her answer that I was unsure if the other two panelists could possibly have anything to add. But they did.

Meg Cabot said she agreed fully with Ms. Bray, but with the one caveat that she wants her readers to understand they aren’t alone. abandon meg cabot book cover 103x150 This is Teen Live: Libba Bray, Maggie Stiefvater and Meg Cabot on Why They Write for TeensShe wants her readers to recognize the truth behind the emotions in her fiction and realize that other people have been though the same trials they go through. For example, in her new book, Abandon, the main character dates someone her mother does not like — the God of the Underworld.

While Ms. Cabot — and presumably all of her readers — have never faced the trial of dating someone literally out of Hades, the emotions there are ones to which almost all humanity can relate. But Ms. Cabot also pointed out that writing for adults, young adults, or middle-grade children — all of which she has done in her long career — is essentially the same thing.

Forever 100x150 This is Teen Live: Libba Bray, Maggie Stiefvater and Meg Cabot on Why They Write for TeensFinally, Maggie Stiefvater reminded us that reading is a form of entertainment. The message she has been putting subliminally on each page is simple — “buy the next book.” And, it’s working. That’s why so many people will be flocking to book stores the minute Forever hits shelves in July.

I was thrilled that the young readers who attended this event with me were able to hear such honesty from the authors of the books they devour. They were spoken to like people instead of like little people. After meeting the three authors and getting signed copies of the books for our library, all of them were leaving feeling special and respected. And, of course, looking forward to the next This is Teen Live event!

Book Review: Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Posted by Caela Carter On May - 26 - 2011

 Book Review: Out of My Mind by Sharon DraperMelody did not kill her goldfish.

When the goldfish jumped out of its cage, Melody tried to scream to get her mother’s attention. When the fish’s flopping body slowed toward a stop and Melody’s mother still hadn’t appeared, Melody wheeled herself over to the fishbowl and knocked it over to at least wet her pet’s gills keeping him alive for another instant in case help showed up. But when Melody’s mother finally came in the room, saw the overturned fishbowl and Melody’s fresh tears she thought Melody had knocked the pet out of the bowl and killed it on purpose.

Melody’s mother clucked with disappointment as she flushed the toilet, and still Melody didn’t explain.

Why not? Because Melody can’t. Although she has a brain ripe with trivia and photographic memories, Melody has such limiting CP she cannot walk, hold a pencil, or express herself verbally.

I picked up Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind because the idea of being trapped in your own brain has always been terrifying to me. I love to write about the physical body of my characters but the thought of taking on a character who is so limited by disease that she cannot move independently or express herself is so daunting that I just had to see how Draper did it.

Out of My Mind is a fascinating look at the power of language and how even it can be trumped by the power of a truly great human spirit. Melody, Draper’s main character and narrator, is a hero. The odds are stacked against her from the start and continue to pile throughout the book, yet she manages to change her circumstances by knowing how and when to accept the help of her greatest resources—the well-rounded characters of her parents, neighbor, aide, and baby sister.

The book is not without its issues—it slogs through a good chunk of backstory before the plot gets rolling and the characters that act as obstacles to Melody are largely one-dimensional. However, Draper manages to truly chapter the unbeatable spirit of a ten-year-old who will let nothing, not even her own body, hold her back.

The First Year: Sona’s Still Got Great Expectations

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On May - 25 - 2011

Roofwriter 002 The First Year: Sonas Still Got Great ExpectationsJust around this time last year, I attended the new student meet-n-greet for the MFA program in creative writing at the New School. It was sort of thrilling — the idea of going to graduate school was still just percolating in my head — and sort of intimidating. My daughter Kavya was just barely two months old at the time, and the thought of making that kind of commitment seemed, well, insane. I mean, what kind of new, first-time mom decides to get an MFA? I guess I do.

And looking back, one year later, I’m glad I did.

Like all my ambitions, my goals for my first year in the MFA program were lofty. I wanted to finish a book. Not a crazy idea, given that others in my class have done just that. But for me, it was pretty impossible, between working fulltime, doing school fulltime and doing the mommy thing full time to boot. A lot of the time, I found myself questioning whether I’d done the right thing. After all, graduate school is a huge commitment, time-wise, money-wise, and when you get down to it, emotionally as well. Writing, even when you think you’re working on fluff, often cuts down to the bone. But I plowed through it — and it was invigorating, exciting, exhausting.

And so,  come May 11, as our final class wrapped, I hadn’t finished my novel. But I was more than 100 pages in — and the book had so many more layers, so much more depth than I’d ever expected it to. The feedback from my peers was often astounding. They saw things in it that I’d never known were there, though I like to claim that I’d planted them all along. As I continue to plow through, I’m realizing that, thanks to their notes, this will be a much stronger book. And that, while it may not be a finished project, is a huge thing to have accomplished in this first year.

Still, for me, it’s never enough. I’m working hard to plow through the second half of this book this summer — because it ain’t over till the fall semester begins. Or something like that. That’s right, you can hold me to that.

And I’m not so behind. I’ve even been thinking ahead, plotting and planning not one but two possible thesis projects and even lining up an awesome advisor for second year, one I was hoping to get the chance to work with in my time at the New School.

In the meantime, I’m really thankful to have a few dedicated classmates who have volunteered (along with my darling, ass-kicking husband) to keep me motivated with regular deadlines and workshopping this summer. And if that ain’t worth the cost of tuition, I don’t know what is.

Photo: Inkygirl.com

Book Review: “Those That Wake” by Jesse Karp

Posted by Mary G. Thompson On May - 24 - 2011

Those That Wake Cover Book Review: Those That Wake by Jesse KarpIn a too-close-for-comfort future, New York City is under the spell of a depression. The subways exemplify the bleakness of the new world—they’re filthy and unreliable, but the people, lost in their smartphones, don’t seem to notice. They ignore the intrusive spyglasses of the transit police as if their privacy had never mattered. This is the world Jesse Karp drops us into with his debut novel, Those That Wake (Harcourt Children’s Books, March 2011).

The novel follows two very different teenagers as they face crises that pull them into a confrontation with the force that is tearing society down. Mal, the son of a famous fighter, struggles in foster care, battered and bruised from his many fights. Laura, a high achiever from the suburbs, only wants an internship that will set her on the path to an elite school. But Mal’s brother disappears under mysterious circumstances, and Laura faces an existential crisis that no one could be prepared for—her parents have suddenly forgotten her. This all sounds like it could be the set up for an opposites-attract, against-all-odds action-romance, but what I love about this book is that it’s truly a novel of ideas. That’s not to say that the novel lacks in characterization. On the contrary, Karp infuses the characters with heart-wrenchingly real emotions, which I appreciate all the more because Karp doesn’t overdo it with internal monologues or jerk you for tears. Instead, he lets his characters exist in the world he’s created, which is bleak enough without making the characters rehash it.

One could read our society’s obsession with technology two ways—as a great way to keep us connected and enrich our lives, or as a way to escape from our lives and abdicate our responsibility to change. Karp clearly takes the second view in Those That Wake. Technology isn’t the Big Bad here—the real villain is a fascinating idea that I wouldn’t want to spoil for you—but Karp uses technological escapism as a symbol for all that’s wrong. Using this and other markers, he does a great job of infusing his high-concept ideas with concrete atmosphere.

Too many YA books these days stick to a simple setting and shy away from complex ideas. I was delighted to discover this thought-provoking novel in which the teen characters sensibly spend more time solving their big problem than obsessing over romance. If you love it when your entertainment exercises your gray matter, you’ll enjoy this book as much as I did.

Cover Image: Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

What a Difference a Year Makes for Caela

Posted by Caela Carter On May - 23 - 2011

calendar 300x225 What a Difference a Year Makes for CaelaI wrote a book.

This time last year I was gearing up for some tearful goodbyes in Chicago and completely terrified of the many ways my life was about to change. I didn’t know where I would live, what I would do for work, or much of anything about my life. I just knew one thing: I was going to try to be a writer. And I was terrified it wouldn’t be worth it.

But I wrote a book.

Before I met my classmates, who are encouraging, determined, and truly inspiring, I was afraid to want to be a writer as badly as I do. Before this year, my mind was filled with doubts every time I faced a blank page. There’s no doubt that taking this step, surrounding myself with writers, and being open to feedback was worth it.

I did what I always wanted to do. I wrote a book.

I did some other stuff too. I read countless books for teenagers and studied the industry. I wrote my critical thesis. I learned to distinguish the shape of a novel from the shape of a short story. I got fantastic feedback from my classmates and revised and revised and revised. I gave feedback on the projects of my classmates that I am sure I will see on the shelves. I landed a great agent and shaped my manuscript so it would be ready for submission to publishers.

In the end, I know this year was worth it because I wrote a book.

It’s still not enough. It’s not enough because the book hasn’t been picked up, because it takes writing more than one book to actually be a writer, because the point is to get better with every word you write.

And it’s still hard to keep the negative thoughts out of my brain when I face a blank page. It’s still hard to imagine this dream of mine actually coming true.

But with this book, I’m one step closer.

Photo by Joe Lanman

Steven’s Rant: Celebrity Book Rehab

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On May - 19 - 2011

Perez Hilton Stevens Rant: Celebrity Book Rehab“Life was hard. But a pouf? That should be easy.” This is the first line of Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s first foray into literature, A Shore Thing. If you can get past the obvious tense shift and make it to the next sentence, it doesn’t get any better, either. The novel is about — well, I don’t really know because one page into reading it at my local Barnes and Noble, I nearly passed out from losing so many vital brain cells.

Ok, I get it. Every celebrity is now a “writer,” right? Paris Hilton, Miley Cyrus, James Franco, Snooki and her delinquent band of alcohol-soaked rejects. Ok, so James Franco went to Columbia and NYU, but that still doesn’t mean he got published just from his talent alone. I read one of his short stories, and it read like a pretentious NYU student’s — full of pretentious pretentiousness. Light bulb time for Mr. Franco: write under a pen name and then submit your work to agents. End rant. (On James Franco, at least.)

Almost every celebrity now-a-days has a book out or a book deal in the works. Maybe it’s because celebrities simply can’t get by on just their craft — they have to be a brand. Musicians can’t just sell records anymore (thank you, piracy), so they need perfumes and colognes and their own line of skin products and shoes. So why not write a book? How hard can it be, right? I mean, especially for those writing for children or young adults. Hilary Duff and Lauren Conrad, like, totally did it! And now, Perez Hilton is coming out with a children’s book. Then again, his skills as an author are unparalleled! Look out, Hemmingway, Hilton is coming to getcha! Here’s a Lady Gaga-inspired summary from Amazon on Perez’s new book (kudos on the originality, Perez): “He was born that way — The Boy with Pink Hair. He had a cotton candy colored mop that no one had ever seen before … Life is not easy being pink. Adults stare at you, little children giggle behind your … back and some kids are just mean. But when you have a best friend who appreciates your uniqueness and parents who are loving and supportive, you can do just about anything.” Ok, fine, his book is promoting equality and all that jazz, but I just don’t care. Maybe if I create a website where I post self-indulgent boo-hockey about myself, cry on video like a little bizznatch, tear down talented celebrities day after day, and WrIte LiiKe ThiS LOLZ AMAZEBALLZ! I too can catch the eye of a publishing house.

Is this what it’s come down to now? Is this what publishing houses are looking for? A brand to sell their books? I’m sick and tired of seeing these “celebrity” hacks getting book deals simply because of their names. What happened to giving up-and-comers a chance to show their talent to the world? If JD Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye in 2011, would it get a second look by publishers if he hadn’t been in the latest blockbuster film or appeared on celebrity rehab? Have publishing houses lost faith in the unknown? Is it all about instant profit in a world of instant gratification? I’m asking these questions because every other week a celebrity releases a new book, and I’m not any closer to getting published. Then again, would a publishing house really be more willing to publish me, an unknown, over someone like Lindsay Lohan? Probably not. Which just means I have to set myself apart. I have to prove myself better than a celebrity, because, well, life is hard. Right, Snooki?

Photo Credit: Amazon.com, Celebra Books

Diversity in YA on Tour Stops at NYC’s Books of Wonder

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On May - 18 - 2011

logo 300x114 Diversity in YA on Tour Stops at NYCs Books of WonderOn Saturday afternoon I went with fellow Teen Writers Bloc member, Sona Charaipotra, to Books of Wonder for the “Diversity in YA” blog tour. Authors Jacqueline Woodson, Cindy Pon, Malinda Lo, Neesha Meminger, Matt de la Pena, Kekla Magoon, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich joined editor Cheryl Klein in a discussion about diversity and diverse book titles in the Young Adult market. I was very excited to be in the same room with people who have influenced my own writing and made me desire to become a successful children’s book author.

 Diversity in YA on Tour Stops at NYCs Books of WonderQuestion: Why do you write for teens?

Neesha Meminger, author of Shine, Coconut Moon and Jazz in Love, said when she first started writing she wrote a large, multi-generational tome because she thought that’s what South Asians wrote about. Then she sent it around to agents and received some rejections, but one woman pointed out that her favorite part of the book was the teen character, so she decided to write it as a teen book and found her place in the teen world.

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of Eighth Grade SuperZero, said she always knew she wanted to write for children and teens because she was working with children in various roles, and wanted to write about transformation and change and what better way to write about it than for kids.

Jacqueline Woodson, author of over 40 books for young people such as Feathers, believes that she writes books from the age she’s stuck in, where she’s trying to work things out.

CamoGirlcover 207x300 Diversity in YA on Tour Stops at NYCs Books of WonderQuestion: Do you identify strictly as an African-American, Latino American, Asian-American, LGBTQ etc…? Do you feel like you have to “represent” the group?

Malinda Lo, author of Ash and Huntress, admits to resisting labels as a young person. “I’m American,” she said to the many people who asked where she was from. She hated that question growing up because it insinuated that an Asian face didn’t mean she was born and raised in America. As she aged, she wanted to be just a writer without any qualifiers, but then she started realizing the power of qualifiers, and being out in the world as an “Asian writer”, “lesbian writer”, “feminist writer” etc, gave her a sense of power.

Neesha Meminger doesn’t feel like she has to represent her identity, but writes about a particular experience that happens to fall within a certain ethnic or racial group. She writes from this experience and vantage point because she desperately needed to see her experience as a South Asian on the page, so she writes them. She said she is, “Writing herself into existence.”

 Diversity in YA on Tour Stops at NYCs Books of WonderOlugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich said she was a black author who liked cheese, and she represents all the things she loves. She wanted to write about the varied and diverse experiences of people of color, and for her it is all about the character.

Kekla Magoon, author of The Rock and the River and Camo Girl, said she finds it important to write about African-American and black kids and to have their faces on the book covers for kids looking to read something with characters in it that look like them. Writing about the brown/black experience is more than just about skin color, and as a multiracial person it is the line she stands on.

Jacqueline Woodson said she writes from her vantage point as a black person and a queer person because it comes from the sense of trying to legitimize ourselves on this planet through writing. She wants to bring to the page what has been historically invisible. She starts with the “otherness” of the character and then gets to the humanity of the character and their human experience.

Cheryl Klein said something powerful that she’d read: “Kids need windows and mirrors. Windows into other experiences and mirrors to reflect back their own experiences.”

Question: What challenges and pleasures have you faced in publishing diverse characters?

Cindy Pon disliked the preconceived notions she encountered about fantasy with Asian characters in it. And that her books needed kung fu and things of that sort. Or that her books would only interest an Asian American audience.

Neesha Meminger spoke about the disconnect between the “business” of publishing and the art of writing. She reflected on the many polite rejections she received that said, “Great book but no market for it.” She knew there were kids out there that wanted and needed to read her stories. And it reinforced that she believed there was a huge fissure between creativity and commerce, and how many publishing houses are afraid of risks.

Malinda Lo lamented that she’s had an overwhelmingly positive experience publishing her lesbian retelling of Cinderella Ash, and feels like the exception to the rule.

 Diversity in YA on Tour Stops at NYCs Books of WonderOlugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich said the most disappointing thing she’s experienced is overhearing parents discuss her book. She told a story of how she would be at book fairs and book expos and kids would pick up her book Eighth Grade SuperZero, and ask their parents to buy it. The parent would scan the paragraph on the back and reach the word “Jamaician” and say something to the effect of, “This book isn’t for us.” She wrote this book for kids just like her and those not like her, and thus the parents’ reaction was disheartening. She finds that kids are grateful to read about themselves, as well as others.

Kekla Magoon says kids are way more open-minded about diversity than adults. And most of the problem seems to be the “gatekeepers” of children’s literature: librarians, teachers, publishers, and parents.

Matt de la Pena, author of I Will Save You, Mexican White Boy and others, reiterated that the business of writing and the art form of writing are so separate. He doesn’t want to be the “Hispanic” author to fulfill some sort of quota, and feels like his books are about being biracial and “not being Mexican enough”. Most times he feels like a sell-out.

tour nycbow 300x212 Diversity in YA on Tour Stops at NYCs Books of WonderQuestion: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Malindo Lo: “Write whatever you want to write and make it as gay as you want to. Tell your stories the way you want to tell them.”

Kekla Magoon: “Believe in your voice. You’re going to get a lot of feedback, criticism, and input on plot, characters and structure, but cling to that unchangeable essence of your voice.”

Jacqueline Woodson: “Just write all the time. Don’t be afraid of what you’re writing. And surround yourself with people who “get” it . Sit on the ‘stoop’ with other writers.”

Thanks to Cheryl Klein and the Diversity in YA group of authors for their creative works and great answers. However, I will say that I was disappointed in the preparations taken by Books of Wonder for their tour stop. There were only 13 chairs for audience members, leaving a huge gap in the back of the store. People had to sit on the floor or were unable to hear. I have attended lots of events at this bookstore and have seen the entire back area filled with chairs and ready for other events. It is just a shame that the attention to detail and presentation reflected at other events wasn’t mirrored during this particular event. I couldn’t stop shaking my head, because of course, an event featuring writers of color wouldn’t look like the other events I’ve attended at the same store. Epicfail Books of Wonder. Shame on you!

The Final Semester: Steven’s Look Back

Posted by Steven Salvatore Shaw On May - 16 - 2011

Steven Shaw 225x300 The Final Semester: Stevens Look BackIt was the beginning of April — two weeks before I was set to leave for the west coast — when I found out I had gotten into The New School’s Writing for Children program. Up until that point, I figured my career as a writer would be nothing more than a pipe dream. In fact, I was filled with so much unrest and so pressed for change that I decided to book myself a trip. Two weeks in Las Vegas and Arizona, ten days in Washington State, and a little over two weeks in California, where I would be looking for a job and possibly a place to live. All that changed when I received my congratulatory letter. I had been preparing for a new life, and suddenly I was redirected back to New York.

When I started school in the fall, I was overwhelmed with excitement. I had just finished writing my first young adult novel that had interest from a few agents — but was ultimately turned down because, plain and simple, it sucked — and was eager to start reworking it. I had decided that the perspective (third person present) was completely off, so I wanted to toy around with first person and multiple perspectives. A few submissions in, my classmates grew agitated with reading the same thing in different perspectives. Still, I learned a lot about perspective and rewriting that first semester. If nothing else, it taught me to try every available avenue before retiring a piece.

That spring, my soul was beaten to a bloody pulp by my workshop professor. I had just started working on something new, something that I’d been itching to write since 2006 (subsequently, it’s what turned into my thesis), and the professor just hated it. Perhaps it was a subject matter he didn’t understand. Maybe it was because those first few drafts of the first three chapters I wrote that semester were terrible — I’ll vouch for that fact. But still, my spirit was nearly broken. I even started to ask myself: do professors expect perfection from rough first drafts? During that semester, I learned to write in spite of others, to continue on because it was important to me.

The start of my second year was really my jumping point. My workshop professor inspired me week to week and allowed me to really see my strengths as a writer; the workshops got more positively constructive, and my writing really flourished. Until it was time to pick thesis semester peer groups. That’s where it got a little fuzzy for me. Politically speaking, it was a mess. Peer groups are required to keep us on track and writing, editing and critiquing in the same style as our workshops. It’s supposed to aid our writing. We had to e-mail our professor and tell her who we wanted to work with and who we didn’t and she’d create the roster from there. Personally, I didn’t care who I worked with. I wanted to stay together as a group. I guess nobody else felt that way, because the groups were unfairly split and I ended up with the short end of the stick. At least I had gotten a great thesis advisor I hoped would further my writing. Still, I couldn’t help but feel slighted.

I guess this brings me to the thesis semester, the one all MFA students look forward to the most. It’s the time where you get to focus solely on your writing. You set your own goals and your own schedule, and you control your own output. I was working with an editor from a legit publishing house, so I had already set my own personal expectations high. Everything started out well enough, but within a month, my peer group had crumbled apart, leaving me to my own devices and with not one extra set of eyes to look at my writing. Ultimately, my advisor was so exceptional that most of the time I didn’t notice my lack of a peer group, and my thesis ended up better than I could ever have imagined it. I’m incredibly proud of the writing I produced these last couple of months, and it taught me that no matter what obstacles come in my way, that as long as I keep on writing, I’ll make it through. I just have to continue believing in myself.

Overall, my experience was a mixed one. I learned a lot about myself and about my writing habits, and I’ve definitely improved my craft and learned how to rely on my strengths. However, I did expect more out of it. I always thought that I’d leave the New School with a great writing group that I’d continue to write with for a solid amount of time afterwards. That didn’t happen. I thought I’d have made a good friend or two, but the truth is I’ve never felt more alone when I’m with my fellow classmates, like I’m on the outside of something great that they forged during their thesis semester together. And I guess I expected a solid path to appear in front of me when I was done, but I’m more lost now then when I started.

Do I think I’ll eventually publish? Yes. I have to believe that. I have to believe in myself. If there’s one thing the New School taught me, it’s that I have the power to overcome. Getting published is a one in a million chance, just like getting into an exclusive MFA program.

Where am I headed? I don’t know. But I’ll write until I get there.

 

pixel The Final Semester: Stevens Look Back
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