From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, September 28, 2015

Literary vs. Popular: FIGHT TO THE DEATH!!

I've noticed some very interesting things in the last few weeks. MFA programs often get the reputation for being snobby, and condescending. Now, I haven't noticed that systemically at BYU. My professors are wonderful, and take my (and others) fantasy and speculative work just as seriously as anybody elses, and they're perfectly happy to let me do an MG or YA novel for my thesis. But a couple things happened to me on the same day that made me realize how strong this seeming battle is in people's minds, and I don't like it.

So, as I said, my professors are great. I mentioned in a previous blogpost, though, that there are definitely times when I feel a little intimidated, and to be completely honest its just a small handful of the other students that make me feel that way. So, in class one day, we were going over publishing and conferences and the professor asked one of the other students about a particular conference that he'd been to. The student said something like, "It was good, yeah, but it seemed more like, toward the popular side of things, not so much literary, you know what I mean?"

And then. Later that same night, I was volunteering at Leading Edge, the science fiction and fantasy magazine at BYU. (They're having a flash fiction contest right now, and you should totally submit, or just submit a short story anyway because they need good work. Like seriously, submit!). Anyway, these are such fantastic people, and I feel so comfortable and myself around them. We talked about Salt Lake ComicCon and Doctor Who and Brandon Sanderson, who teaches at BYU. One of the people there asked me what I was studying, and when I told him I was doing an MFA, he said, "MFA's don't really do anything for you. You should drop out and just write."

So. Here's my thing. I think each side has it about 50% correct. When people get snobby or hyper-literary about their writing, I want to say, "Well I won't see you on the New York Times Bestseller list anytime soon, will I?" And when spec writers say MFAs are pointless, I want to say, "You realize that Brandon Sanderson, the idol of so many in this room, has an MFA, right?"

It is vitally important in ANY story to 1) Tell a good story and 2) Tell it well.

Why do so many feel like those things are contradictory? It is so incredibly frustrating to me when literary writers look down on genre fiction, or when genre writers don't feel obligated to learn and practice their craft. Haven't we proven time and time again that genre fiction can be incredibly literary? *ahem* Ursula Le Guin *ahem*. Haven't we proven that literary fiction can spin a ripping good yarn? *ahem* Anthony Doerr *ahem*.

I realize I'm preaching to the choir here, a bit, because y'all are awesome and I'm sure you don't have too many disagreements with me here :) I'm also not saying one has to be genre to be popular, or has to get an MFA to write well. Neither of those things are remotely true, its just my particular situation. Anyway, it's just fun to rant about this every once in a while, isn't it? Especially when its so present in my current situation, more so than ever before. But its kidna funny, really, and I just smile and say, yes, I'm going to write YA supernatural, and yes, I'm going to get an MFA. Because both sides are important. You guys know this :)

Write on!

Sarah Allen

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Monday, September 21, 2015

If You Fangirl At People Everyday Clap Your Hands

So the other day I was at the car shop getting my front tires replaced. (ugggghhh amirite?) Anyway, there were two guys sitting across from me and one was wearing a Captain America shirt and the other was wearing a Superman shirt. So duh, of course, we got into an excellent conversation on Marvel vs DC, and the awesome Marvel movies that are coming out and how DC is doing its best to keep up and all that fun stuff. It was fun, because I often get this like, uh...calm down look from people but these guys were like, "Yeah! And Captain America Two was great!" and then I was all, "Sorta, but number one was so much better!" and they were like "And Ultron was kinda disappointing!" and then I said, "We just totally need Tom Hiddleston back to play like all the supervillains!" etc, etc.

I started my Poe class today asking if anyone had seen last nights season premiere of Downton Abbey (HAVE YOU? HAVE YOU?) and one guy said he hadn't, but was sort of familiar with it and then I went on about how he should totally watch like all of it except totally skip season 4 except for the last few episodes. When I got done talking my professor was just looking at his books and grinning. I tend to do that to people a lot. Then during class we were talking about one of Poe's stories and I said something and he said, "Like John Lock in LOST," and I was like "OMG I LOVE LOST CAN I WRITE ABOUT POE AND LOST IN MY FINAL PAPER," and he was like, "Well probably writing about Borges and LOST would be better" and I was like "OKAY I'LL DO THAT."

Anyway, I'll sit down know. Except THE NEW MUPPETS SHOW PREMIERES TONIGHT. So no. No I won't.

Write on!

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Monday, September 14, 2015

How to Learn from Award-Winning and Best-selling Authors Every Day

Isn't modern technology miraculous? We hear stories of friends going to a lecture of a New York Times bestselling author, or a friend running into a Pulitzer winner on the Subway. Imagine what we could learn if we were friends with these people, or could hear them speak!

Hey guess what. You can listen to writers like that every day, and its easy.

There are so many resources out there for listening and learning from amazing writers. Why should you spend time with these resources? Because it helps us other writers engage in the conversation. Maybe a throw away comment from one of these people will help you understand the publishing industry in a way you hadn't before. Maybe you'll hear a solution to a plot problem you're having. When you're doing dishes or driving in the car, these are some of the most productive things you can be listening to, in my opinion. This is as much for myself as anyone else.

So how do you listen to great writers every day? Well I can give you a start.

University reading series. Almost every university has a weekly or monthly reading series, where writers from all over come to present their work to students. Often these may not be writers you've heard of, but they have incredibly great talent, and great stories and advice to share. My university for example does a weekly reading series, and anybody can watch the recordings of those here.

The National Book Festival. When I lived out in DC, the National Book Festival was one of the greatest parts. And even though I haven't been able to go to it since, I've been able to watch any lecture from the festival that I'm interested in because they're all on YouTube. Seriously. You can watch Billy Collins or Lois Lowry or John Green or Steven Millhauser or Walter Dean Myers or so so many more. You can find the playlist for the 2014 festival here.

TED Talks. I've mentioned TED Talks several times on this blog and I'll continue doing it. It is such a great series of thought-provoking talks on subjects that probably haven't even registered before. And what could be better for a writer? Even though most of these talks aren't specifically about writing, or even given by novelists, many speakers are non-fiction writers talking about their ideas. And that can be a great thing for any writer.

The Writing Show and Other Podcasts.  There are a large number of great podcasts with great guest writers, but one of the my favorites is The Writing Show with Paula B. It was canceled almost three years ago, but the archive of episodes is a treasure trove of knowledge.

Because we're all continually educating ourselves as writers, right?

Write on!

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Monday, September 7, 2015

First Week of the MFA: What I've Learned Already

So I've survived week one, and am on my way to start week two. It's been a very enlightening week. I've already had to make some pretty big mental adjustments, and make decisions about strategies and expectations. Still working on that part, really. But here's what I've learned already.

Other writers can be intimidating. Especially poets, not gonna lie. It's going to take some adjusting to get back in the swing of academia again. Outside of school, you sort of think you know what you're doing, but all that feels like it has to go out the door once you're in a workshop with a bunch of other writers. But I've decided that this is going to be a good thing. It will be good to learn from writers that intimidate me (both professors and fellow MFAers) and it will be good to learn not to be intimidated. Which brings me to my next point...

Don't lose yourself or what you already know. I've been blogging and researching marketing and the industry and working on short fiction and novels and poetry since I graduated college. I'm sure many of my fellow students have too, but my point is that the work I've already put into a writing career doesn't necessarily have to do with them. What I've learned about the industry and who I've already become as a writer will grow with the program, but that most definitely doesn't mean that the work I've already done isn't valuable.

Optimize your opportunities. So I have had to make some decisions about how I want to approach this program, as all students do. I think most have the tendency to come back on campus with guns blazing and eyes popping and ready to take on absolutely anything that comes there way. I have decided that is not the most effective or efficient approach. There will be so many opportunities on campus, and there are so many opportunities for writing in general. But between presenting a conference paper on 19th century American literature and submitting a short story portfolio for a creative writing scholarship, I know which opportunity I need to focus on. And if that means saying no to other things, then so be it.

I want to especially point out that these lessons, and others I will learn throughout this MFA program, are available beyond a university campus. I am most definitely not getting this degree because I think I have to to be a writer. That's false. I'm doing this because 1) I believe and hope it will make me a better writer and 2) I hope it will help me increase understanding of and make connections within the publishing industry.

Anyway, I hope you all had a fantastic labor day. Write on!

Sarah Allen

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