Too Type-A or Innovative?

The innovation is going to come, and that is good for everybody. --- Hilary Rosen

I’ve been trying really hard not to go too type-A on my life. I was never that way, but then in the cult I was forced to read all these annoying business books, carry a Franklin Covey planner (back when we carried paper around), and be on time. I always failed. I was never neat, on time or organized and I never had a goal that didn’t revolve around someone else’s life. So I find it strange that my laid-back self has turned into a type-A nazi. I think it might be temporary just like my visit into whoredom was, but we’ll see.

I’m up early, working before work. If that’s not type-A enough, I don’t know what is. On top of that, last week I found myself sending people Excel spreadsheets to help with me a project. On Saturday I bought filing folders and labels with a plan to file all my 2013 tax receipts, just in case I’m audited. (It happens.) Of course some of this type-A-ness might not be cult related, it might be related to work, where I’ve found my niche of sorts and am constantly having to be well-organized and on time. I was forced to change in order to keep my job because you really can’t be all laissez-faire about company timelines.

But now that I’ve started blogging and love it, I’ve started other websites and other projects. In order to not get bored, I allow myself to dream and try to be innovative. There’s also a small part of me coming back that wants to help people, and I think I’ve found my other calling. Two of them really. Editing and teaching writing. Right now I’m working on figuring that all out, but it makes me extremely happy to find something I’m good at and love. Going hand-in-hand with that, I applied to an MFA program in creative writing and will apply to another one. If all goes well, Fall 2014 I might be enrolled in a program; however, I was so late on one deadline that I’m thinking of pushing it back to Fall 2015 just so I can apply for financial aid. Grad school is extremely expensive.

So at 6 am, I was up this morning, telling myself to go back to sleep until 6:45 but I couldn’t. I was excited and wanted to work on this new forum I’m creating that I’m keeping on the down-low for now. In the past month I’ve experimented with designs, different paid services and I’m deciding between two things right now. I’m ready to launch it but I haven’t found the perfect solution. It’s fun, being a type-A. Although I wonder if I’m really actually a type-A or if I’m just too easily influenced by others perceptions and others labels of me. I have a friend who sometimes projects on to me what someone else in his life was, so he’s labeled me a type-A inadvertently. If I were to define myself, I would call myself innovative and creative. I just have a lot of creative energy and action, which I didn’t have before I started blogging. There’s a lot more to it than just blogging–I started treatment for depression, as well, and after four or five years of treatment I’m feeling so much better. My entire life feels different. Is there a cure for depression? I don’t think so, but I do think there can be an improved quality of life.

Look Who’s Graduating


It’s officially happening, kids! It was supposed to happen in 2011 after being one class away, but unfortunately it didn’t come together fully until this year. Regardless, it’s official and I couldn’t be prouder of myself. I’ve enjoyed my time with some kick ass professors along the way and am so happy that I went the Creative Writing route in college. I’ve come out a better writer and communicator and I found my voice. So, if you’re reading this wondering if you should go to college, the answer is YES! If you’re wondering if it’s too late for you to start, the answer is NO! I started at 25 and finished at 32. There’s no shame in working full time (or mothering children, or whatever it is you do with your days) and taking it slow. There’s also no shame in starting late in life. The bottom line is, if it’s something you want to do (college isn’t for everyone), you should do it.

grad announcement-001

Back to school, again

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ll be going back to school again this semester. I’m going to take a few required courses and then be done with that chapter of my life. Thankfully, an awesome professor was really sweet and worked with me to get enrolled despite how late it is, and some other challenges I’ve faced. I also was able to add a class from UCLA but only one. As it turns out the other one conflicted with a required course, so I had to say goodbye.

girl studying

{Photo above: Not me}

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ll be going back to school again this semester. I’m going to take a few required courses and then be done with that chapter of my life. Thankfully, an awesome professor was really sweet and worked with me to get enrolled despite how late it is, and some other challenges I’ve faced. I also was able to add a class from UCLA but only one. As it turns out the other one conflicted with a required course, so I had to say goodbye. It’s okay, though. The one I’m enrolled in will be perfect for where I am with my memoir writing and the instructor’s syllabus made me excited. Yes, excited. She has very good taste in memoirs and we’re reading one of my favorite memoirs, The Kiss. I’m obviously excited to study it with the class and the professor, though, because even though I’ve read it twice, professors always frame the study of a passage or a book in an entirely different way than what you may have seen. Classmates are good at that, too.

I had to submit some nonfiction writing samples to get permission to take the class, though, so now that I jumped over that hurdle, I can relax until next week when I start the juggling act–work, school, homework, book…sleep?

In the meantime, I’m preparing the materials I need for applying to MFA programs (a graduate degree in Creative Writing). Some of you know, there’s a lot of work that goes into applying to grad school. The application is one tedious part, the fees, getting your transcripts mailed to the school and processed, then your personal statement and test scores. For writing programs, it’s a bit different. Besides submitting all of this, a student also submits up to 25 pages of (really great) writing, and a critical essay on books you’ve read in the past (this is a breakdown of themes within the novel, outside research, and study of the characters or the diction). Reading is a major part of writing, so they want to make sure you are a good reader and know your shit. They are also making sure you’re fit to be in a graduate level literature class, since most programs have so many of them. The reason? Many people who receive MFA’s go on to teach English at the college level.

I actually wouldn’t mind teaching, but teaching is something you have to practice doing and many times you practice by working for little to nothing initially. For the first few years it’s a challenge financially while you establish your teaching experience, at least for the young professors I know. I do have a job, although I’m not entirely certain it will be a long-term career, so I think it’s great timing for me to consider other options.

Don’t you get a graduate degree in writing to be a writer, Lisa? If only it were that simple. To become a professional writer, one must write–often and well. Although the purpose of your graduate degree is to complete your work on a thesis (a book-length manuscript in this case), that’s just one manuscript. It usually takes many, many, many more to become self-sustaining on residuals (and many writers don’t ever reach that stage). There are, of course, the very lucky few who “make it big” but writing is like acting–success is possible, but it’s a long shot.

That’s reality, but of course we’re all dreamers. We imagine we will be the one to make it big; have success; land on the New York Times best sellers list with our first book.

Writing: The hardest job West of the Pecos

Why are MFA programs so impractical? I don’t know. I think professors build their classes upon what their professors before them did and a lot of that means degrading genre writing and focusing largely on theory and art rather than becoming a professional writer. They do have a point in much of their tradition: great writers are born from studying great writers. Mediocre writing can be born just about any way.


As much as I am a writer, I don’t want to write at all lately. Of course when I get lazy or uninspired, I judge myself and get sad that I won’t reach my self-imposed goals of finishing my own book. I will admit–I have wanted to quit writing this book since September and feel like life would be easier if I would. But it won’t. I know myself–if I were to quit, I would feel so guilty and not be able to sleep at night.

Instead of continually suffering, I decided to enroll in a few memoir writing classes this semester along with finishing the final two classes I need to graduate. I should’ve graduated long ago, and would have, but that’s a novel so I’ll refrain from telling the story here.

For years, I have debated with myself over whether I need an MFA to complete my book (an explanation for non-writers: an MFA is a two year graduate program focused solely on producing a book-worthy manuscript that’s been peer reviewed and reviewed by professors and mentors. The chances of getting your manuscript published after an MFA program seems to be higher than doing it the good old fashioned way, judging from my observations, although it’s not a certainty and the more I’m observing I realize many writers don’t publish immediately after their MFA is complete) and whether I could afford an MFA. An MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree is an expensive one and they are often located in areas of the U.S. that I don’t want to live and where my job is not located.

Meanwhile, until my inner debate is finished, I’ve decided to take a few classes locally. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the UCLA Extension writing classes (UCLA does not have a traditional creative writing program) and there aren’t many options when it comes to creative writing (it’s not as popular as science or business, so classes are limited). A few friends have had great professors and gotten a lot of good writing and instruction from full courses or weekend courses. I’ve signed up for one weekend course and one full course, although I’m not sure how I’m going to balance it all this semester (with work, plus two traditional courses, plus these). If all else fails, I’ll put them off until this summer or next fall, but knowing that they are there and very close makes me feel good.

Speaking of next fall, I’ve started my application process to two graduate writing programs despite not being entirely sure if I can afford it. I’ve decided to apply and see if I’m accepted (first) but since almost all of the application deadlines for Fall 2013 have passed, I have to act now to actually reserve a place in these two programs who are still accepting applicants.

My main deterrents to applying to MFA programs prior to this were two things: 1) Most MFA programs are very impractical (teaching mostly theory and very little on how to actually make money or how to get published) and 2) I would likely have to give up my job and move which would make it financially impossible for me to attend. MFA programs typically frown upon genre writing (or writing that is commercially successful).

I was supposed to apply to one program last November and it was a program I wanted to attend years prior, but the more I started looking at the theory-heavy coursework I started dreading the idea of getting my master’s there and getting into that much debt. I knew I would clash with some professors (because of my non-traditional view of what the MFA should be) and didn’t want to spend two years and a hell of a lot of money doing just that. So, I didn’t apply and stopped researching programs for the time being until I figured out what to do. After all, I couldn’t attend a graduate program until my classes were finished and it didn’t look like I would get all the paperwork in in time. (As it turns out, I did!)


Only a few months have passed but the writing has not gotten any easier. I have written some pages I am very proud of and I feel like I’ve found the voice and am framing my story very well, but I’m back in the same spot again, wondering if I should go back to school to finish this damn manuscript and knowing that I did really well writing in a workshop environment. (Again, for non-writers, a workshop is where you share your written work with fellow peers and they go page-by-page pointing out strengths and weaknesses. It’s the standard way writers get their work edited before we have agents and publishers and all that.)

Why are MFA programs so impractical? I don’t know. I think professors build their classes upon what their professors before them did and a lot of that means degrading genre writing and focusing largely on theory and art rather than becoming a professional writer. They do have a point in much of their tradition: great writers are born from studying great writers. Mediocre writing can be born just about any way. Also, most writers want to teach writing so the MFA is suitable for teaching after the program is over. I do think great writers are made partly by focusing on the art of writing and devoting hours of study to great masters before us, BUT no MFA program should be entirely focused on this especially to the point of neglecting the real world, the publishing industry and industry trends toward commercial work.

I found the following great interview with Tod Goldberg the other day while searching for a low-residency MFA program and what Tod says here is what I have been saying for years. Of course, that means I’ll be applying to his program. If his words here are any indication of his classes, I have to admit, I will feel it worthwhile to attend.

Caleb J Ross: You said something at last year’s AWP which stuck with me. Paraphrased, of course, you said that you teach your MFA classes like an instructor of any trade program might, with the end goal of providing financial opportunities for the students. This seems like a radically different approach than most MFAs which may instead focus on non-definable, creative signposts to gauge student success. First, am I expressing your idea correctly? Second, how is this goal compromised by a low-residency program, if it even is?

Tod Goldberg: Pretty close. Essentially my philosophy is that if you’re in an MFA program, your goal isn’t to become the most well-read person on earth with a handful of literary quotes at your disposal at all times, it’s to be published. It’s to be produced. Graduate programs in creative writing are some of the few that seem entirely esoteric because they don’t seem to be training you for anything tangible, apart from maybe being a particularly enlightened barista, because, well, that’s frequently the case. But I think that has to change. Being a professional writer is a job. And if you want to write books, or write screenplays, or write poetry, simply for personal edification, you certainly don’t need an MFA program to do that. But if you want to become a professional writer, I think an MFA program can and should be a clear stepping stone in that direction. Most aren’t. Most entirely eschew the idea of life after the MFA — in fact, most programs tend to herald your acceptance into the program as the “making it” part of your writing career, which is silly. It’s school. It’s what you do afterward that makes a difference. So in that light we talk about publishing and production a great deal in the program I run at UCR, about the difference between being workshop-good and publication or production good. We have agents and editors and film producers and studio heads that come in an read our students work and give them a real world idea of where they stand. And our professors are doing it, too (no one works in the program in the professor who isn’t still publishing or producing).

I got my MFA late in the game — I’d already published 5 books, countless short stories, sold several projects to Hollywood, written hundreds of pieces of journalism and was actually directing two MFA programs at the time (before going to strictly a low residency MFA, UCR Palm Desert also had a part-time traditional MFA program, too) — when I went to get my MFA from Bennington, so I feel that I have a unique perspective on this. Clearly, I didn’t need an MFA to be successful. But my experience with one particular professor at Bennington, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, opened my eyes regarding how to become a better writer, how to build on what I did well already, and that alone was worth the price of admission, and I believe that comes from that mentor/mentee relationship that low residency programs foster.

So I don’t think this philosophy of mine is hampered in the least by low residency program; in fact, I believe it is the best avenue to pursue this line of thinking. Being in a low residency program mimics the life of the professional writer. You’re probably balancing your writing with another job, you’re probably also writing some stuff like book reviews on top of your creative work (or doing coverage if you’re a screenwriter) and you’re probably at home on the weekends, up until late in night, in your underwear, typing.

(Excerpt from Caleb J Ross/AWP Blog. Read the rest of the interview here. I highly recommend it.)



Information from around the web on MFA programs: 

Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) (I’ve always found their information useful.)

Bennington College (A low-residency program I’ve heard great things about.)

Vermont College of Fine Arts (Another low-residency program I have heard good things about.)

The Atlantic’s Five Top Low-Residency M.F.A. Programs (Take it for what it’s worth. I don’t know that I would rank Antioch very high, at all.)

2012 MFA Rankings: The Top Fifty (Poets & Writers Magazine) (I use this as a guide to what programs exist, not for their ranking system)

Why the Poets & Writers MFA rankings are a sham (a Columbia graduate scolds P & W for ranking his alma mater lower each year due to their very high tuition)