Once upon a time, I went to school at Minnesota State University Moorhead (MN). Actually, I spent seven years at that school. After receiving my BA at year four, I hyperventilated for about a month because What the hell am I going to do with a BA??
Ohhhh….I know–I’ll just stay in school. Get my MFA!
It wasn’t a difficult choice to make; I wanted to write, and staying in school for two, two and a half more years–most of which would be filled with writing workshops–was like being a kid and having someone tell me I’d “have” to spend my days in the cool fort out back with buckets of chocolate chip ice cream.
I don’t know how useful my degree has been–that is, I don’t know how directly responsible it’s been for anything I’ve been able to do–but it did prevent me from getting jobs in a few towns. Hotels didn’t want to hire me (they called me “overqualified”), and I couldn’t get a job at a bookstore (I maintain it’s because of the degree). However, I did get a job at a newspaper with no prior (actual) reporting experience, and my degree could have had something to do with that. I’ve never been certain, though. Turnover was high at the paper, and I applied at a lucky time, I think. (I should note that it was, and still is, a really good paper, despite the turnover. At mid-sized papers, reporters will eventually decide they want to move on to something bigger.)
Two things I know I can confidently attribute to my MFA, however:
1. Writing. I’d not have written the many stories I did, nor received the inspiration to write more, without the grad school writing workshops
2. Being editor of American Fiction
When I started taking writing classes at MSUM in 1997, American Fiction was one of the ahhh-AHHH!s of literary journals whose list of guest fiction contest judges include Joyce Carol Oates, Tim O’Brien, and Raymond Carver, and it was (and still is) published by MSUM’s own New Rivers Press. (This year’s contest judge is two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Clint McCown, whose bio can be found here.)
I had fantasies of being included in AF, of having one of my own stories among those of the real writers. They weren’t even fantasies, actually, because publishing in a journal like that with writers I knew were so far beyond me–talented and magical and other-worldly Writers who were undoubtedly always thinking profound and artistic thoughts, probably had unruly hair, and of course wore wrinkled, natural fibers–seemed such a distant goal for a beginning “serious” writer that I was more likely to think about it for a few seconds, think “Yeah, that’d be cool,” and then look at the clock and wait for class to end.
I took creative writing classes throughout college, many of them with instructor (and New Rivers senior editor, I later learned) Alan Davis, author of the short fiction collections Alone with the Owl and Rumors From the Lost World.
He attracted me as an instructor immediately because he didn’t talk like a Minnesotan. No offense to Midwesterners, but the accent has always driven me crazy. (If you’ve seen Fargo, whose Midwestern accents are highly exaggerated, you know every “o” sounds like “ouwh.” And bagel – pronounced, by most, “BAY-gull,” is, to a Minnesotan, “BAG-el.”) I even used to practice a sentence every now and then–“I want to know how to speak normally in Minnesota”–to make sure I held onto my accent-less speech cultivated in the melting-pot environment of an overseas military community.
I heard Davis’ accent in my intro to creative writing class and thought, “He’s from New England!” I loved all things New England; therefore, I immediately liked him.
He introduced himself and said he was from Louisiana.
Okay, so my accent-pinning skills were off, but he was still from “somewhere else,” which was really all that mattered.
Classes began with all the creative writing exercises writers know and love, and Davis’ critiques were concise. For example, “Slight” was the only comment he scrawled on one of my stories. My favorite one-word critiques from him? “Good.”
It’s largely due to Davis that I stuck with writing. His one-words challenged me, and I was encouraged by his praise. He was the one to recommend I keep writing, and then that I take a graduate-level workshop while in my senior year of undergrad, and ultimately that I apply to get my MFA. (Like many writers or other artistically-motivated people, I had little confidence in my own ability. I didn’t know enough to know whether what I wrote was any good–or, if I thought it was good, I didn’t know if I had the right to think it without someone else thinking it, too. Someone who knew what he was talking about.)
Since the age of 12, I’d always thought I wanted to write, but college let me know.
After a few years of writing classes, Davis suggested I submit something sometime to American Fiction.
There could not have been better praise. He made clear, of course, that submitting something didn’t mean having that something accepted, but his telling me I should submit alone felt a lot like being nominated for something wonderful. It was like being told I was, even just a little bit, good. And that I had a chance at being lumped in with all the patchouli-smelling, pontificating, hemp-wearing Real Writers.
Alas, by the time I felt I was ready to submit, American Fiction had gone on hiatus.
I submitted to other journals, instead, and went my merry way writing this and that. While writing Homefront, I decided I needed breaks, now and then, from my characters, and I founded and edited, with Shelly Rae Rich, Tuesday Shorts, an on-line journal publishing flash fiction. I wasn’t as interested in being an editor as I was in being a writer, but it was a fun project and it was gratifying to read so much good–if very short–writing, and to be responsible for a weekly collection of stories people wanted to read. (Tuesday Shorts, founded in April 2007, closed in May of this year.)
Last year, Davis approached me–along with co/assistant-editors Bayard Godsave and Bruce Pratt–about reviving American Fiction with us as editors. “Interested?” he said.
Okay, so I wouldn’t get to have one of my stories included (however tempting it might have been to submit something to one of the other editors using a pen name and taking my chances). But I would get to be part of American Fiction, this journal known for its superior writing and authors, whose place in the literary world has twice been recognized by Writers Digest as “one of the best places in the United States to publish fiction.”
Even more thrilling than just being part of it?
I get to send acceptance letters to contest finalists and know I might be delivering news to someone who, like me, could once only have imagined being one of the Real Writers whose stories made it into American Fiction.