Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Entries in writing tips (37)


Why Get an MFA in Writing? (In The Word Cellar)

notes for my graduating lecture, "The Secret Life of Language"

Back in May I declared that I would revive the bi-monthly "In The Word Cellar" writing column with a mini-series on choosing an MFA program. But then for the rest of May and part of June I was frantically finishing up work for my degree. By mid-June I was scrambling to complete freelance projects and get ready to go to Vermont for my final on-campus residency and graduation, which took place at the beginning of July. And then I took a road trip with my husband to celebrate and -- phew! -- relax. I've been home for a month, but my creative spirit is just now starting to catch up with my body. I can't believe that nearly a whole season has passed since I promised you more "In The Word Cellar" posts, and I'm sorry for not fulfilling that offer. I'm not suggesting that you've been holding your collective breath, but I know that some of you have wanted me to address this topic for awhile. This blog is just about the only place that I miss "deadlines" (unless you count "laundry" and "dusting" as things with deadlines), but that needs to change. (Read more about my love-hate relationship with structure.) Thanks for sticking with me. I appreciate you being here.

Why get an MFA in writing?

First, a caveat: I don't believe that graduate school is a requisite for becoming a better writer. There are plenty of ways to do that, and an MFA program is just one way. It was the right choice for me, so I'll speak from my personal experience. Please know that I'm not trying to sell anyone on that option.

So the question really is: Why did I get an MFA in writing?

The short story

I was looking for the following three things:

  • formal training and feedback to help me continue growing as a writer;
  • community with other writers; and
  • connection to the wider world of writers, writing, and publications.

The longer story

In November 2008 I spent five grim days in a beach house on the Jersey shore. A friend had invited me to join her and two other women for a writing retreat. The days were grim not for the company, but for the weather and fact that I had terrible writer's block. Inside, I stared mournfully at my laptop and checked my email obsessively. Outside, the sky hung flat and grey, the rain, drizzle, and fog erasing the sun all day every day. After a few days of this washout (weather-wise and creatively), my mood matched the sky: dreary.

Down in the house kitchen things were cheerier. Each night the four of us met to make dinner and to discuss writing. The other three had more formal training and creative writing experience than I did. One had even published a novel and was emailing her agent or editor about her second book while we were at the retreat. (Interesting side note: The published author had an MBA while the other two had MFA degrees.) Each evening, I was pleased to note that I could keep up with the conversation despite my relatively junior status. But I also realized that I was often trotting, perhaps even skipping, to keep up. These were my peers, yes; but they were several steps ahead of me. I let this bruise my ego until I realized that it was an opportunity to learn.

I wrote almost nothing during those five days, but several thoughts that had been bubbling under my mind's surface began to coalesce. For many months I'd felt like my writing has reached a plateau, and I didn't know how to move forward.

From "I suck" to "How do I improve?"

In my teens and twenties, it was easy to wrap myself in the insecurity blanket embroidered with the mantra, "I suck." But as I eased into my thirties, I'd learned to embrace my identity and skill as a writer. I finally believed that I was a good writer, but I knew that I could be so much better. This new stance was both empowering and bewildering. I knew I could improve, but I didn't know how.

For too long I'd been writing in a relative vacuum with limited feedback. I'd let the solitary nature of a writer's life edge out communion with other writers. I'd immersed myself in the practical side of freelance writing at the expense of living a "life of letters." I knew that literary journals existed, but I knew nothing about them. I didn't know what contemporary authors were publishing what. At the retreat I realized I didn't even know a lot of basic creative writing terms.

A decade earlier, as a senior in college, I'd considered graduate school. I looked at Master of Arts (MA) programs for literature studies, but they didn't feel quite right. I had no intention of pursuing a writing degree; just the thought terrified me. Back then, I didn't believe I could be a writer.

During the intervening ten years, I thought about grad school every so often, but no area of study appealed to me enough. I knew that if I went back to school I'd be getting the degree for the sake of having a masters degree; it would be an ego-driven decision, which wouldn't be worth the investment of time or money.

The obvious epiphany

Then one night, as I sat in that New Jersey beach house staring at my laptop, listening to the rain, and despairing, a little nugget of a hopeful and obliquely obvious idea crept up on me. What if I went to grad school for writing?

It seemed impossible, but the thought energized me. I had no idea where to go to school or even how to research programs. But the Internet is a magical place, and a few web searches later I would have a long list of possibilities.

Next time I'll tell you more about how I created and narrowed down that list of possibilities.

But right now, I want to jump back up to that list of reasons at the top of this post. I was looking for these three things:

  • formal training and feedback to help me continue growing as a writer;
  • community with other writers; and
  • connection to the wider world of writers, writing, and publications.

I knew I could get all of those pieces outside of a graduate program. I could find online resources and travel to in-person workshops and seminars. I could reach out to my very small circle of writer friends (so small it was more like a semi-circle) for community as well as for recommendations on what to read and how to plug-in to the writing world.

In fact, I knew I could probably achieve all three of these things without dropping tens of thousands of dollars on a formal degree program. As I said in the last "In The Word Cellar" post, one good writer friend tried to talk me out of going back to school and touted the alternatives. She made some good points, but my gut was telling me that grad school was the right path for me.

I haven't always had an easy time listening to my intuition or making decisions, but the more I put the puzzle pieces together, the more I felt that an MFA was the best way for me to find everything I wanted. I liked that it would all come as a package deal. I liked that I wouldn't have to cobble together craft and community and connection by myself.

By the time I climbed into my car to drive the long diagonal line from the northern New Jersey Shore to my house in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, the sky was bright blue. And I knew that if I went back to school it wouldn't be just for my ego.


Next time: How I researched and chose an MFA program.

**Questions? Leave them in the comments and I'll reply there or address them in an upcoming column.**

In The Word Cellar normally runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Read other posts in the series here.


The Road to MFA-ville (In The Word Cellar)

Today, I saw my name in print. This is not the first time this has happened, and, gosh, I hope it won't be the last, but this one was pretty sweet in a blood-sweat-and-tears way. Today the lecture list for my final MFA residency was released. You can see the whole thing here (click on "Residency Lecture Offerings"), but this is the part that made me smile the most:

Jennifer McGuiggan
How do we use language? How does it use us? The subconscious life of language can take us beyond the everyday surface of words and plunge us into deeper waters. We'll look at questions such as the following: Is language a sensuous entity or a mere code for useful communication? How do the sounds of words impact us? Can language itself be a creative force both on the page and in the world? How do writers harness the inherent power of language to convey meaning? And how do we remember to have fun with words amidst such weighty topics? This lecture applies to all genres and will include excerpts from Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, Eudora Welty, and others.

I was also pretty damn impressed with my classmates' lecture descriptions. We certainly do look good on paper. And I think we're pretty cool in person, too. I'm honored to have spent the last two years with so many fine writers, including those in other classes and especially on the Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty. I'm looking forward to my last trip to campus as a student, to hearing my classmates share what they've learned, and to -- oh yeah -- graduating!

When I was deciding whether or not to apply for grad school, a good friend of mine tried to dissuade me from it -- not because she thought I couldn't hack it, but because the thought of two years in academia made her want to take a long nap under the covers. This friend, mind you, is a college graduate, incredibly smart, and a fantastic writer to boot. She just didn't see the allure of pursuing a masters degree in writing. She raised a lot of good points, and I carefully considered her advice. I'm glad she voiced her opinion, because it pushed me to fully articulate mine and be certain that I was following the right path for me.

I don't think that anyone must get an MFA to be a writer -- or to be a good writer. But I do know that it was just what I needed at this stage of my writing life. Many of you have asked me for my thoughts on choosing (or not choosing) a graduate writing program. Over the next few weeks months I'll share my thoughts on picking a school and why you might (or might not) want to commit to a degree program.

The "In The Word Cellar" writing tips series has been on an extended hiatus, but I'm reviving it with this mini-series on the MFA. If you have other questions about writing or the creative life that you'd like me to answer, please leave it in the comments or email me.

And now I must go finish the final draft of my lecture. (What? You thought it was all done just because I had a title and summary? Pshaw!)

In The Word Cellar normally runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Read other posts in the series here.



Writing Lab Panel (In The Word Cellar)

A few months ago I spoke on a Writing Lab panel at BlogHer called "How to Use Your Blogging to Make You a Better Writer" (a rather unwieldy title, I know). The audio recording of the session is now available. If you're interested in figuring out who's speaking, take a look at the liveblog transcript here. It's a loose outline of what was said (since it's nearly impossible to keep up with four panelists and audience members in real time!), but at least you'll be able to figure out who's talking most of the time. My fellow panelists were Dianne Jacob, Mary McCarthy, and Suzanne Reisman.

p.s. FYI: The person introducing me says my last name wrong. It's pronounced Mc-Gwig-en.

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In The Word Cellar runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Read other posts in the series here.

Edited to add: I'm putting these In The Word Cellar posts on hiatus for a bit while I do some other types of writing. Look for more in a month or two.


Dealing with Feedback (In The Word Cellar)

Frog Creek Lodge, WA

One of the best things about getting feedback on my writing during grad school? Advisors who disagree with each other. Seriously.

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One essay, two opinions:

I love how the essay turns here and you start using the pronoun "you," almost as if you're guiding the reader through the landscape and giving them directions. I like the intimate feel of this.


I don't think the essay works as well here when you begin to address the reader as "you" and give them directions such as "If you walk here...." The tone changes and doesn't match the rest of the piece. You start to sound like a travel guide.

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These next comments refer to two different essays, but they highlight the two advisors' differing world views:

You're too hard on yourself in this portrayal. Don't hold yourself to such high standards!


You could probe more deeply into your own mistakes and shortcomings.

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See? Isn't that fun? (I should note that the above statements are paraphrasings, not direct quotes.)

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Each month, I send about 30 pages of writing to my grad school faculty advisor, who reads it and then offers feedback and suggestions on what's working and what could be working better. I'm in my third semester of this process, long enough to have had several different faculty members read some of the same pieces as I edit them. (I work with a new advisor each semester.) I respect all of these professors as writers, teachers, and scholars. These are smart, well-read, and wicked-good writers.

But I don't always agree with what they tell me. One of the best parts is that they don't always agree with each other. I love it when this happens, because it frees me to figure out what I think. Of course, I'm free to figure that out at any time, but receiving conflicting feedback is a great catalyst for this.

But what happens when multiple people say that something isn't working in a story? It's another invitation to figure out what I think. I step back and take a fresh look at the writing in question. I may decide that it's just the way I want it, feedback be damned! Or I may realize I need to tweak it to make it work better for readers. Or I may decide I need to rewrite or delete it completely.

Getting feedback on your work can be intimidating, nerve wracking, and downright maddening. But if you can take everything with a grain of salt (and maybe a shot of tequila with a squeeze of lime), you have the opportunity to see how readers respond to your work, which can be valuable.

Say you're in a workshop with fellow writers. If nobody in the room understands that your main character was a ghost, and you wanted readers to understand that your main character was a ghost, well, it's time to rethink how you present Ghosty.

If half the room gets Ghosty and half doesn't, then it's time to consider who you want to listen to. (You can set your own criteria for this. I like to side with whichever group has the better writers. Or whichever group has the most cool people in it. Either way.)

Receiving feedback on your work takes some getting used to. I recommend seeking out people who respect you and whom you respect. It's good if they're also kind. Even if I don't like the feedback someone gives me, I try to step back and see if there's any truth or merit in what they said. If there is, I take what I need from it and apply it to my work. If there isn't, I try to let go of it gracefully.

But here's the most important part: In the end you have to trust yourself and stay true to your vision. Some people will get it, and some won't. And that's just fine. So I say be open to feedback, but let your own voice be the one that guides you.

Want more writing tips? Join me in October and November for Alchemy: The Art & Craft of Writing, an online course for creative souls. Register by Sept. 30 to save $30!

In The Word Cellar runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Read other posts in the series here.


Rituals & The Writing Process (In The Word Cellar)

the view from my studio window (Diana F+)

This week's topic comes from Jenn, also known as the Freelance, Unconventional Nun (which is one of the best names ever!), who left a comment back on this post. Her question deals with the writing process and finding techniques and rhythms that work for each us.

Jenn wrote:

Once you let the writing take over and you're flowing, how do you know when to stop or rather how do you separate that life you are creating on paper from the life you are creating around you? I find it hard to write for a few hours and emerge from that space with the ability to stay connected with the people, places and things around me. The feeling scares me and as a result I haven't written much in the last few months. I just start to feel like I'm going crazy and I don't want to.

What an intriguing and powerful question.

I tend to have the opposite problem: The people, places, and things around me often pull me out of my writing. I'm too easily distracted away from the page. That said, I do experience times when the writing draws me in and I'm immersed in the story.

These moments of flow feel magical to me, but I understand how an intense writing experience could be disorienting and even frightening as you come out of that focused state.

I've developed a technique that I use when I need to quiet my mind and work through distractions. It's a little ritual, really. I make sure I have something to drink next to me (usually water, tea, or coffee) so I don't have an excuse to get up for a beverage. I light my favorite candle (Lavender Leaves by Henri Bendel) and commit to writing for an hour. I even make the commitment out loud to myself: "I will write for an hour while this candle burns." Sometimes I set a gentle-sounding alarm (on my cell phone) as a way to keep myself from checking the time obsessively during that hour.

This simple ritual helps me to enter into my writing. Sometimes I struggle for most of that hour, wrestling with words and trying to stay focused. But I don't let myself check Facebook or email or go do the laundry. I keep writing. Sometimes I find the flow before the hour ends, and sometimes I don't. Either way, I've put in an hour of writing, and that feels good. When the hour ends, I can choose whether to keep going or to rest and then do another round.

I wonder if you could create a ritual or technique to help you transition out of an intense writing experience. Maybe you could light a candle when you start writing, and perhaps set a timer to go off ten or fifteen minutes before the time you need to stop writing and re-enter the world around you. By giving yourself that cushion of time, you allow yourself to recalibrate and refocus. During those minutes, you could do some yoga poses or stretches, listen to some favorite music, do a little dance around the room -- something to ground you in the physical "now" away from the page. After this little interlude, you could blow out the candle to symbolize the transition to whatever you need to do next, knowing that the candle and the story are available to you when you can return to them.

This is just one suggestion. Everyone has a different writing process. I'd love to hear other ideas and techniques in the comments. How do you stay focused on your writing? How do you leave the story-world for the physical world around you? Please share.

In The Word Cellar runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Read other posts in the series here.

The first In The Word Cellar online writing course for creative souls is coming soon! Learn more about Alchemy: The Art & Craft of Writing. (Registration opens later this month!)

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