The Writing for Children MFA experience at The New School — gulp, I can’t believe it’s over — was one of the most enriching educational experiences of my life. Here’s my attempt at capturing it in an ABCDErium with pros, cons and random essentials.
Authors. Meet them, read them, learn from them, learn with them, learn how to be one.
Amazing classmates. I really lucked out with this batch. Cheers class of 2012, you rocked!
ABCDErium. (ABBA-SEE-DA-REE-YUM) An A to Z perspective on a topic that you write after you meditate on it for a while and then just let it free-flow as you unleash your thoughts. An assignment for class I taught was to write an ABCDErium on Miles Davis’ album Bitches Brew. See Juggling.
Books. The MFA was a great way to learn things I never knew and needed to know about the business of books. I saw many of my classmates land book deals during the program. I also read more books in the last two years than I ever had—sometimes more than three books a week. At any point of the program my desk was covered in more than 15 books. Bliss!
Craft. Gathered immense respect for the craft of writing and the gazillion things that make it what it is: Thoughts. Plots. Words. Story arc. Character sketches. Voice. First person. Second person. Third person. Sub plots. Themes. Motifs. Summaries. Outlines. Revisions. Chapters. Buttons. Grammar. Edits. Rewrites. Writing is a beautiful complex organic stimulating scientific thing. As Andrea Davis Pinkney says: Writers Write.
Community of writers. Perhaps the best part of the MFA (at least for me) was the opportunity to share and learn with many inspiring and talented writers and build life-long associations with them.
Deadlines. The four scariest words for a writer — “I have a deadline.” And the only ones that get the job done. I doubt I’d be able to churn out my writing without deadlines — a journalism that trait stuck on. But as the MFA progressed, I feel like I coped with managing deadlines better. (I confess, this post was turned in late, but hey, I’m working on getting better at TWB deadlines.)
David Levithan. Taught us a seminar on teen lit in the first semester. Knows the YA and teen lit genre like the back of his hand and teaches a mad inspiring class about it. He is also very funny.
Expensive. Unless you have benefits, be prepared to be over $60K in debt. A part scholarship doesn’t even begin to count.
Focus. A writing degree with a focus on Writing for Children. As of now, few universities around the world (seven to be precise) offer such a niche master’s creative writing program.
Feed. A dystopian novel by MT Anderson, one of my favorites from the reading list in the first semester. I loved the fact that the books on our syllabus were contemporary and uber cool.
Go For It. If you can afford it and are even thinking about a creative writing MFA, Go For It. It’s a great way to get started on writing projects that you’ve imagined for years but never gotten around to completing. Who knows, you might finally write that winning manuscript—or at least get started on it.
Harry Potter was not on our syllabus. Nor The Hunger Games. A lot of books you’d expect to see on a syllabus for a Writing for Children program weren’t on ours. In fact, the reading list for the Writing for Children concentration, with David Levithan and Susan Van Metre’s class (the only two classes that focus on children’s literature and were both fantastic) put together didn’t go beyond 45 books in the genre. Sure, we studied a LOT of excellent books, and yes, I definitely read tons outside of the syllabus as my own self-study. But I do feel like the program could use a more comprehensive and extensive reading list, and certainly one with more cultural diversity. Besides Sherman Alexie, Coe Booth and Grace Lin, I found the reading list dominated by white American authors. I don’t recall reading anything by a single Indian author. Perhaps the only Indian character I encountered was Bibi, a Bengali nanny from Julie Sternberg’s Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie.
Immersed. I feel like someone drowned me in a bottomless, delicious tub of kidlit.
Juggling. You could choose to focus solely on your writing, like some of my classmates. Or you could be adventurous and juggle real life (a time-consuming job) and write when no one’s looking, like others. Either way, writing requires some serious juggling skills that an MFA is sure to hone. In the first year I juggled with adjusting to life in a new country, as well as coping with a new system of education. I’d never left home before, so that was all pretty overwhelming, along with learning how to write academic papers, something I hadn’t formally learnt during my schooling in India. In the second year I was offered a Teaching Assistant position with New School’s Riggio Honors Program in Writing & Democracy, which was a fantastic opportunity for personal growth and learning. In Fall 2011 I assisted the amazing Tom Healy with his class The Writer’s Playlist, a close-listening and reading seminar that explores links between music and literature, both of which I’m passionate about. (That’s also where I discovered what an ABCDErium is). In Spring 2012 I joined the editorial team at 12th Street, New School’s award-winning literary journal, where I had the opportunity to work with a dedicated team of student editors and contributors as we assembled the fifth issue of the magazine, from editing to production, publicity and beyond. Both my TA experiences invaluably broadened my reading range and literary network. Word.
Knowledge. It’s the foundation of the MFA, isn’t it?
Kevin Joinville. My buddy and the only boy in our class. The Writing for Children concentration usually has just the token male. This is not a pro or a con, just a mere observation.
Lang Café. Spent a lot of time inside it with peer group. Or by myself in the courtyard next to it staring into trees for inspiration and, yes, eavesdropping on conversations.
Manuscript. What a beautiful word! Say it with me: MAA-NUU-SCRIPT. By the time you graduate with an MFA, you might have one. Or two. Or three! Or you might have the semblance of a manuscript. Whatever the case, it’s a great feeling (I want to say accomplishment) to see a word document grow page by page into a large body of work. I wrote a little over ten pages of a story in the third semester that eventually became the major chunk of my creative thesis. And towards the end of thesis semester, my MAA-NUU-SCRIPT grew wild and unkempt, complete and uncontrollable.
New York. Concrete jungle where dreams are made, yo.
New School. I’m proud to call it my writing Alma Mater. I had six other schools to pick from, and the New School was always numero uno on my list. I’m pretty convinced I made the right decision. Too many reasons. New School’s history of writers, which I was totally unaware of until recently, all the people I met during my time there, the fact that New York city is the helm of publishing and watering hole for aspiring writers, my amazing classmates. Let’s just say that the New School was an important and exciting chapter in the life of Riddhi Kamal Parekh.
Overwhelming. See New School.
Others. Writers of other genres. Like them Poets. Or writers of Fiction and NonFiction. Writers completely unlike those who Write for Children. There’s really minimal interaction amongst the WFC people and the other streams. My classmates may disagree, but I wish there was more mingling amongst the genres. Because, I mean, in real life, a writer is a writer is a writer, right? Also, how else would we have met the one and only Lenea Grace?
Peer group. In the fourth and final semester you suddenly find yourself rid of weekly classes and seminars. Instead, you meet with a peer group — a small group of classmates who read your work and give you feedback on it, and you do the same for theirs. My peer group felt balanced, committed and extremely inspiring, making the MFA worth every precious dollar. Amy Ewing, Caela Carter, Jess Verdi, Mary G. Thompson. You girls are my supportive upper lip.
Picture books. A largely ignored aspect of the Writing for Children program at The New School. Because of my interest in the genre, for some reason I had imagined there would be a larger focus on picture books. Perhaps the chance to collaborate with students from Parsons or something. But no such luck. My classmates even raised this issue with the faculty and tried to gain access to Children’s Book Illustration taught by Jacquie Hann, offered by The New School’s Continuing Education Program. This class might have been more beneficial than having to take a class outside of the Writing for children concentration (see Mary’s post for this month on this issue), but due to logistics or something, none of us were offered this class. We did, however, have a series of fantastic weekend workshops towards the end of each semester. One of them was in Picture Books, by the lovely Sarah Ketchersid, and I hope she continues conducting them at The New School. Andrea Davis Pinkney’s weekend workshop in Writing Cross-Culturally was also MUCH needed. Hats off to Dhonielle Clayton for arranging that. Like picture books, Cultural Diversity in Children’s and Teen Literature is another scarce aspect of the program. I’m sure everyone who attended these workshops will agree that they need to be further integrated into the overall curriculum of the Writing for Children program.
Questions. There are many swirling in my mind. Like was the MFA worth it? What happens next with my career? Will I find a job in publishing? Is it the MBA equivalent of Writing? What kind of jobs does one look for after an MFA im Creative Writing? Does it qualify you to teach? Will I ever sell my manuscript? Will I get an agent? Will I be the next JK Rowling? Who knows? Keep checking this blog for updates.
Quiet. There’s nothing as inspiring as a humorous ditty about writing a thesis or some ridiculous Hinglish Bollywood song to get me recharged and get the words flowing again. But really, I do prefer silence when I’m writing—something I discovered through the course of this program. And yes, most people who are not writers, like roommates or friends who do ‘normal’ banking stuff or members of family may imagine that creative writing is a recreational and enjoyable activity where writers get high and turn on music and snap into the creative zone where writing page after page is just so easy. But really, no. Peace and quiet. Very essential to the process. (Oh bite me, you know Q is hard. But X is the hardest!).
Reading your work aloud. Yes, you have to do it in front of everyone at the end of your thesis semester. A few weeks ago, I read from my work at an MFA Student reading at Lang Center at The New School. It was the last student reading of our graduate program, where selected faculty and first and second year MFAers from all streams — Fiction, Poetry, NonFiction and Writing for Children — read from their work for about 3 to 4 minutes. Newly admitted students of Fall 2012 were invited to come and watch. Standing at the lectern, I zipped down nostalgia express to the first time I was in that very space at Lang Center. I was part of the audience — the sea of writers at the MFA orientation. I can still remember that feeling of being lost, as we called out our concentrations, and felt a little hope when I heard others call out the WFC concentration — although most said poetry or fiction. Back then, I never imagined I’d have anything to read to a room full of people, let alone be proud of it. If you chose to avail it, the monthly student readings at the New School great chance to the develop the confidence to read your work and to hear your peers and were a super supportive environment for me.
Submission. See Deadlines.
TWB. Teen Writers Bloc. This blog is a result of the MFA program class of 2012. And isn’t it the best thing ever? Three cheers to TWB! I’m proud to be a part of it.
Thesis semester. See Manuscript, Peer group.
Urban dictionary. A great resource for writing-related research. No, seriously.
Uneconomical. Can you learn the things you learn in an MFA program outside it? Sure you can. But will you take the time out to commit to your writing? And then will it be worth it? It’s a call every aspiring MFA candidate must to take. See Expensive, Overwhelming.
Voice. Very important when writing for children, teens, young adults and first-person narratives. David Levithan’s reading list introduced us to some fantastic voices. See David Levithan.
Vermont College of Fine Arts offers a low-residency MFA Program in Writing for Children & Young Adults. MT Anderson is part of the faculty. I’d love to hear more about it and compare the two programs. See Focus.
Writing for children. Gah. Pretty much the subject of this ABCDErium, no? See Go For It.
Xenophile. A deadly word I discovered in a desperate attempt to complete this post. Like the remarkable Dhonielle Clayton and myself, a xenophile is an individual who is attracted to foreign peoples, manners, or cultures. (Give me a break, you know X is the hardest!) See Quiet.
YA. I wasn’t as aware how extensive this literary genre was before I embarked to this program. Maybe it’s bigger in America? I’m not sure. Either way, YA rocks. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_adult_literature) See David Levithan.
Zipped by. Whooooosh. It really did. I wish it didn’t pause for three months during the summer.
Photo Credit: Riddhi Parekh