I’m Terrible, or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

orchid at Filoli

As you may already know – or maybe you don’t – I am heading into my final semester in the MFA program for Writing at the University of San Francisco. Last summer, I took the first of two thesis classes, where you work one on one with an instructor. Your primary focus is to continue creating or begin revising the submission(s) for your thesis, which is required to graduate successfully and on time. This fall, I am to complete the second step of the thesis, where I am to focus on final revisions and formatting.

I tuned out this summer from nearly everything. When I should have been working on my thesis for real, I simply withdrew from reality. I’ve said it before. So much was going on in the real world (terrorist attacks, celebrity deaths, Black Lives Matter) that I couldn’t focus on myself or anything important to me. I couldn’t get a handle on my feelings. I went through the motions for most of the summer. I was selfish and did some fun things, but I don’t think I was selfish enough.

I also decided to begin a new chapter of my professional life by gaining employment at a local museum. That has literally been my dream since as long as I can remember. It’s surreal that I’m there. I’m learning new things every day while applying what I already am a master (mistress) at. I feel like I might be able to thrive in that environment and I’m ready for the challenge.

My fall thesis instructor asked when my work could be ready for pickup and I realized I should get cracking on revising. I crammed revision of three pieces of my seven piece short fiction collection into one afternoon.

Despite the title of this blog, I don’t regret a damn minute of it.

The key to revision your own work is not to start revising immediately after you’ve gotten feedback. There are some folks who insist, as the feedback is fresh in the brain and you can start applying changes right then and there. Not me. I am of the school of letting it sit and percolate for a bit.

I hit on a formula for revision that may work for you.

  1. Read through it once; no editing, no matter how badly you want to. Make physical notes with a pen and paper about character names, plot holes you just realized were there, revisions you think you might want to make, etc.
  2. Read it again and start deploying your notes. Don’t obsess over things too long, just get through your notes.
  3. Set your piece aside and take in the feedback you’ve been given in workshop (hopefully you’re able to workshop your pieces before revision). Accept and/or reject feedback as needed. Like in real life, you don’t have to take everything to heart. Sometimes it’s good to have a fresh pair of eyes look at the words on a page you’ve read a million times before. Notice if there are patterns in the critiques; those are the ones you want to delete or play up as needed.
  4. Read through your piece again, incorporating the feedback you think would strengthen your piece.
  5. Set it aside and look at it at a later date.

It was seriously a lot of fun to post up in 1 of the quiet rooms at the library branch that I saw being built when I first moved to San Jose. It’s what I should’ve been doing all summer. I tuned everything out and revised the SHIT out of the initial 3 pieces my instructor is going to get. I let myself get distracted only minimally. Accidentally leaving my cell phone at home probably helped tons. I think my favorite observation from this experiment was that I gutted one piece before I got to step 3 in my revision process. By the time I was finished with gutting it, their feedback was moot. Oops. Thankfully the other two needed minimal revisions. I’ll take one last look at them all before I send them to print.

There are a lot of my fellow writers who still talk down about MFA programs, or write missives about how they left their program. I’m not going to lie either; they’re not meant for everybody. If you’ve already got your foot in the door with an agent, a publisher, whatever, why apply/why stay? Keep doing you. I went into the program because I had no guidance whatsoever on how to be a professional writer. There were no writing programs in Southside Modesto. I didn’t know how to look at my work critically. I majored in English literature, I can write the shit out of a critical paper on an author’s work, no problem. But reading and critiquing English literature does not a professional writer make. There’s only so much great literature you can read before you want to do it for yourself.

I entered my program to be a professional writer, to observe how others do it, to see how I incorporate what I’ve learned so that I can do it when I’m out in the world. That’s what I’m learning. I’m sending my stuff out. I’m getting rejected. That’s part and parcel of being professional and I couldn’t be more excited.

And that’s how I spent my summer vacation.

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