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  • I read a lot, and I have a lot of opinions, so I can't believe I haven't made a list like this before. If you are even a little bit like me or you want to get a peek into my psyche (you probs don't), these are the books to read.



Posted on January 20th, 2009 by annakjarzab

The big idea is recreation. You know what that means? …Well, let’s break the word down, shall we? Re-create. To create again. Begin again. To start over. People need to do that. Work is fine, but every now and then, you’ve got to take a break and re-create…Remember, recreation isn’t about relaxing. It’s about redefining…whatever’s become undefined.

This past weekend I did a little recreating myself. (That quotation is from Joan of Arcadia, by the way.) I didn’t really plan for the weekend to go exactly as it did, but I’m glad I changed my plans at the last minute. Super glad. Like, “What was I thinking when I made my previous plans?” glad. This weekend was the emotional and social equivalent of one of those cleanses where you only drink lemon water with honey and cayenne pepper or some such; you flush the toxins out so there’s more room for the good stuff. Or more toxins. I guess it kind of depends on how dedicated you are to what comes next, which I TOTALLY AM you guys.

I left New York on Friday morning. My flight was scheduled for 10 AM out of La Guardia, so I caught a cab a couple of minutes after eight. It would’ve been exactly at eight except for some unfathomable reason I was locked IN to my apartment building. I couldn’t get out through the front door because I guess it was locked from the outside? This has never happened before and it was totes weird, but I didn’t really have time to go knock on my super’s door and explain to him patiently that the fact I pay rent to this building doesn’t make me its PRISONER. I went to the basement, shimmied up the fire escape and then rappelled down the side of the building to get out, and let me tell you, that is not easy when you’re carrying a twenty-five pound duffel bag.

It was one of those mornings where New York throws you a freaking bone (except for the getting locked in my building part). I got a cab no problem, there wasn’t any traffic, security was a breeze, and my flight was on time. I did sit next to an elderly couple who were complaining about Barack Obama and how because he’s from Illinois he’s probably corrupt because “everybody there is on the take.” Oh, Blago. Why’d you have to go and give the Land of Lincoln a bad name just when people were starting to believe? Whatever. Old people make the darndest assumptions about state politics that are probably more or less true!

We landed in O’Hare a little bit early, but I don’t know if you knew this, O’Hare has seceded from the nation and is now its own country, so it took me six hours to walk across it and I didn’t even get to go through the tunnel of light, which is my absolute favorite part! Bygones. The El was pretty easy to find, but also a squillion miles away from my gate. Because I am awesome, I still have my Chicago Card from two years ago and didn’t have to worry about getting a CTA pass, which is why I didn’t notice until a little bit later when I was reading some of the signs on the train that a single ride on the El has gone up to $2.25! With 30-day passes at $86! That’s more than New York (although I’m sure that our fares will get hiked again really soon). Also, my train went express for no reason. Chicago! It really is just like New York except with lower taxes and less bodegas! Here’s an idea: let’s have the 2016 Olympics there.

It was SO COLD in Chicago on Friday, you guys. SO COLD. My friend Marisa told me this horrifying story about a friend of hers whose ear fell off when it was that cold (this may or may not be apocryphal, but it certainly gave me a mental picture I did not want), so I was reasonably worried about my extremities, and the four block walk to Browne & Miller HQ did make me want to lay down and die, but all was well when I arrived (a teeny bit late for a late lunch) to two famished literary agents. Obvs, we vamoosed right out of the office and down the street to Mercat, which has amazing fries, if you ever find yourself hungry on S. Michigan Avenue.

I love Joanna and Danielle. Not only are they amazing agents, but they’re really smart and fun. Lunch was long and delicious, with lots of talk about marketing and the industry, and when we went back to the office Joanna and I talked about what comes next. I have to finish MB for my editor so that I can get it to her, I hope by the end of January–it would be nice if showing her MB coincided with sending AUT into the copy editing stage, but that depends on if there is still any work to be done on AUT. We’ll see. But also I have my two other books in the pipeline, and after talking to J it looks like I’m going to follow my instincts and work on GR first. I have about twelve pages and a page of synopsis for GR, so there’s a lot of work to be done. I’m excited to write a book from scratch again, it’s been a long time since I’ve done that, since when I was writing MB this summer I was writing off a synopsis and six chapters I’d written almost a year before.

I spent the rest of the (mercifully a little bit warmer) weekend with my aunt and her family in the suburbs. My beloved cousin Emma picked me up from the train station and when we got home my aunt was waiting for me with a glass of wine, and my uncle came in approximately fifteen minutes later with Giordano’s pizza. My cousin Matt grew approximately sixteen feet, Jacob Black-style, since I’d last seen him a year ago. On Saturday, Emma and I went to see Slumdog Millionaire, which was excellent, and then we went to Matt’s basketball game.

Now, about this basketball game. Matt’s team was solidly beating the other team until the second half, when the difference between the two scores was a point or two throughout. With twenty seconds left, Matt’s team scored and it looked like they were poised to win, but in the last SIX SECONDS the other team was able to get the ball two thirds of the way across the court and a guy SHOT and SCORED at the buzzer. It was sad our team lost, but also, that’s pretty amazing. As my aunt said, “That boy will remember this day forever, and we got to be here. Isn’t that cool?” Then we went home and watched The Dark Knight, which they LOVE but which I’d never seen. Not to beat the obvious horse completely to death here, but Heath Ledger was a super star. His performance in that movie was so impressive.

On Sunday my aunt and I went to fetch my grandmother from the city and we went to Jameson’s, a steak house in the suburbs. It was so good to see my grandmother; I realized then that I’d only seen her once since I moved out of her house and to New York. I wish I’d gotten to spend more time with her, but hopefully we’ll be in Chicago next Christmas so there will be plenty of time for that. I’d also like to go to Chicago one more time before then, so we’ll see what kind of flexibility this summer affords me. That evening we watched the season premiere of Big Love and I watched an ENTIRE EPISODE of Desperate Housewives AND Brothers and Sisters, both of which I dislike, although I will say that the DH episode was sweet and interesting. On the other hand, Snoozeville, Population: Bros and Hos. Also I indulged in some Jon and Kate Plus Eight, because you know how much I treasure that show.

On Monday we went bowling (God, this is probably so boring, I realize that now–sorry!) and, true to form, I sucked. But I still had SO much fun. This whole weekend was very calm and restorative and full of love and laughter and right now I’m giving y’all diabetes with my sappiness, but I’m telling you, if you have family you adore, make all efforts you can to see them. It’s better than Prozac.

So, how to take a happy girl down a peg? Give her a two hour delay on the tarmac and a crazy guy in the cab line and a two thirty AM bedtime. Oh well. I’m exhausted, but Barack Obama is president now and I’m going to see Equus after work with three of my best NY girlfriends. Recreation.

P.S. I had a dream I was friends with Stephenie Meyer and we were at her son’s school. I wish there was an emoticon for “mildly confused shrug”. Dream Stephenie was super nice, though.

Can an MFA program make you a better writer?

Posted on April 2nd, 2008 by Anna Jarzab

(Note: Is it “an” MFA program or “a” MFA program? Verbally, I would say “an” because of the pronunciation of the letter “M” as “em”, which starts with a vowel, but “M” is actually not a vowel, so it should probably technically be “a” MFA program. Thoughts?)

Today at Paper Cuts, there was an item about MFA programs, whether they’re rankable and how one would go about doing that and bracketing them like March Madness and stuff. Basically, the rankings are determined by the perception of the program’s prestige by other MFA programs, which…actually tells you almost nothing. What would be an actual indicator is if you could quantify “best” by pointing to how many successful writers have been churned out by a certain program. Well, apparently the math on such a venture is sort of fuzzy, and completely indeterminate! Like you’re surprised. Because “successful” is defined by Paper Cuts, a New York Times blog, as “having hit the New York Times bestseller list”, which is not really the sort of success most MFA graduates display. As far as I know, no MFA program claims to turn you into the next Nora Roberts or John Grisham…they want to discover raw talent and then turn that person into the next Hemingway or Flannery O’Connor. But literary writers don’t make the Times bestseller list very often. Probably the best way to do this would be to investigate how many graduates of MFA programs win major prizes and awards (Nobel, Pushcart, Pultizer, Story, Orange, NBA, Printz, etc.) and how many are regularly published by prestigious magazines.

But here’s the important question: can an MFA program make you a better writer?

Short answer: I don’t think so. Or at least I don’t think an (“a”? ARGH!) MFA program can make you a better writer any more than, say, WRITING can.

Long answer: I didn’t attend an (whatevs, I’m owning it) MFA program, but I did get a MA that allowed me to take creative writing classes and write a creative thesis, which ended up being about the first 60 pgs. or so of AUT. I had been working on Draft 2 of AUT for about a year and a half before I took my first fiction writing class at the University of Chicago and what I handed in as my first workshop piece (the first chapter of AUT, more or less) is so different from what is now the opening chapter–and it’s the same scene, just COMPLETELY rewritten. Needless to say, the input of my instructor (who became my thesis adviser) helped enormously. Nic was very encouraging of the project, but he held my writing to a higher standard than I did and taught me to refine it, not to mention pushed me to make difficult but essential changes that helped mold the novel. The version of AUT I turned in at the end of the year was AT LEAST 50% better than the version I started with in January, but, and I think this is important, the version of AUT I’m going to send to Joanna next week is AT LEAST 50% better than the version I turned in for my thesis.

Workshopping, at least in my opinion, is worthless unless you trust and respect the participants, which is, in my experience, wholly impossible in a university environment. There were maybe two or three students in each of my writing classes last year that gave me consistently good, helpful feedback in a constructive way, and two of these people were friends of mine already. The one person who really made a difference that year was my adviser, and to a different extent my preceptor (sort of a camp counselor, but for mind-bending philosophy courses and soul-crushing theses), Jon. And the best thing Nic did for me was tell me I had some talent and a pretty good idea and all the tools, so stop being lazy and get to work. Sometimes, you need to hear shit like that. But if you can’t find an adviser that you’re compatible with, or who gets your work, or who you can learn from, AND the workshops are worthless (they almost always are, I’m fairly adamant about this), well then you’ll get virtually nothing out of an MFA program.

People like them because they give you the opportunity to focus on your writing without being bogged down in such mundanities as, you know, having a day job, but if you need two years of school to write well then you have big problems. Because let’s say you produce something good and sellable (not a guarantee) in those two years, you probably won’t be able to live completely off your writing and you’ll have to get a day job to support yourself/your family and then what will you do? You’ve never done that before, how can you cope, how can you live a normal life and write? By enrolling in an MFA, you’re just delaying the inevitable in this regard.

The other thing is that MFA programs are not meant to teach you anything that you can apply outside the publishing industry. They don’t set you up with a failsafe career, like law school or, to an extent, MBA programs or Ph.D. programs. I don’t regret my MA program for a couple of reasons: 1.) I didn’t pay for it, my parents did, which is an incredibly gross UMCW thing to say, but it’s true, 2.) it wasn’t an MFA program, so I took plenty of non-writing classes, many of which have enriched my writing and expanded my literary horizons with regards to what I read and how I read it, and 3.) I was able to get a university-subsidized internship at a literary agency, where I learned A LOT about the industry and got hooked up with my current job in New York. But getting your master’s in anything without having to in order to qualify for a job (an MFA certainly falls into that category, as does my MA) is a real risk and you need to square with spending $50,000-$150,000 that you may never be able to recoup.

I guess whether or not an MFA program is worth it depends on what you think you need to learn, whether or not you learn it, and how much good work you come out of the program with. But a lot of times what happens (at least, in my estimation; see any volume of Best New American Voices for an example of this) is MFA students all end up emerging from a program in any given year with pretty similar work. All good stories, but stylistically sort of “meh.” I once read a volume of Best New American Voices (I think it was 2006) where, I kid you not, all but one of the stories was in the first person and they were not very different from each other. In essence, what I mean to point out here is that MFA programs can actually hurt you by making you, though perhaps technically a better writer, also just exactly like everybody else. And creativity and individuality are the cornerstones of good writers (and good books). So…I personally thing you can get a similar sort of education just from reading and writing your little heart out, but some people think it’s important to have a mentor, some kind of published writer to “teach them the craft” or something. I can’t argue with that thinking–having a “real” writer who you respect and admire have a vested interest in your writing can be freeing, but it can also be terrifying if all you want to do is impress that writer.

You don’t need an MFA to be published. You certainly don’t need one to be a good writer. All you need to be a good writer is patience, tenacity, and a library card. Okay, and probs access to a computer.