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Letter to a Student About to Enter the Queens University Low-Residency MFA Program, Best Blogs 2008

Since I haven't blogged about writing in this space yet - too busy touting my own work - I thought I'd post something today that I wrote to a friend (who shall remain nameless) who is contemplating the next few months before the Queens residency commences in May. Queens University in Charlotte NC plays host to a fast-growing low-residency MFA program. I teach there twice a year, during the residencies in January and May.

Specifically, this excellent human wrote me to ask about beginning a full-length work before coming to the residency; was it better to begin the work now or to wait and work on smaller, less compelling projects; and if better to begin now, was it acceptable just to dive into it without any preparation or proper invocations of the Muse, etc.

FWIW, then, my too-lengthy reply (and I wasn't even drunk when I wrote it):

The thing to do with the novel: Let it teach you how to write it. Because it will. It will be your best teacher, and is in fact the only entity in the universe that can teach you to do what it needs, specifically.

At QU we can help you to pull things together, teach you what is working in the MS you've got underway, help you develop strategies for dealing with issues that arise as you get to know the beast lover that the novel will become, instruct you in how to suffer the least damage in what will ultimately turn into a kind of abusive (or at the very least unrequited) love relationship.

Because that's the thing: You can love the novel to excess, which means you will sacrifice yourself to it; or you can make it love you, which means it won't be hard on you, it will do what you want - but it won't ever become much of anything in the process. You can love it unreservedly, or it can love you unreservedly. There is no fair exchange in play here. Most writers are unable to choose to sublimate their desires and egos to the desires and ego of the work. They'd rather make it submit to them - which it can certainly be made to do - than the other way around (which takes a powerful sort of egolessness).

Not a healthy project perhaps, psychologically speaking, but it is our own.

So yeah, start the novel. Or rather, let the novel start you. It already exists, as fully and powerfully as you yourself exist - but it is up to you to let it find its fruition in your mind and body. Give yourself over to it utterly.

Then, when you come to Queens, it can be a kind of breather, a moment of near-rationality in a sea of irrational indulgence in your work. We'll throw you a lifeline, help you get a grip on what has a grip on you.

Otherwise, you show up like people with just a little religious feeling show up at church - hoping that something the mousy little pastor can say will light a fire within them, and they'll find Jesus. That doesn't happen, or not often.

What happens is, the drunk self-abusive half-mad prophet wanders into church and plunks down on a seat, already broken. And with luck the church helps him find a way to deal with his brokenness, and to make it the center of a working relationship with God. At its best, that is what Queens can do and be.

So yes - take the next three months - not so long, really - and break yourself on this book. We'll put you back together, though maybe not the same as you were before, and probably not right, either, if you know what I mean.

So that's my advice, for anybody's who's trembling on the brink, wondering whether now is the time to start a big project, or whether you should wait to find out how to do it before you begin. Throw yourself off, and then find a teacher to help you when you're too tangled up in the brier patch below to help yourself anymore. If you find a good teacher, then that person will probably tell you to get even more tangled up in it.

Give everything away, every time, for all time.

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The best art teachers . . .

. . . are those whose students find their own way and do not paint like the teacher. Some very fine artists are not good teachers, their students often seeming like imitations of the teacher.

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Tangled Up

I think many of us have weighed in on the great debate about if/when to pursue an MFA. I appreciate this fresh side of the discussion for those fortunate to be entering a program. I think whether or not you're enrolled full time, taking continuing studies courses, or writing on your own in a room, we all reach a point when we tremble on the brink, as you aptly put it, and where we wonder when or how to break ourselves and when or how to put it all back together. But that might just be the part I enjoy most as a writer...the breaking and the binding and the tangle of it all along the way. Thanks, Pinckney.

Jennifer Massoni, Red Room