Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Does It Take to Get a Master's in English?

Not much, regretfully.  In terms of a final project, my school requires only 60 pages, either of a memoir, short story collection, or novella.  That 60-page figure is a MAX number of pages.  It used to be that you had to submit a full novel or a complete (approximately 200 page) short story collection in order to have a shot in hell at getting a Master's.  But these days, with budget cuts and hiring freezes, the university staff just don't have the time to read 200-page books from all of us.

So we get 60 pages.  Max.

What the heck is wrong with an educational system that gives people a Master's degree for 60 pages of crappy fiction?  Or memoir?  It's embarrassing.  Granted, I don't have a literary novel lying around that I could use in order to graduate.  (A romance, a spy thriller, a mystery, and a vampire historical--yes, I have those!)  If my school had real standards, I'd have had to finish the literary mystery I started last summer.  I would have had to follow it through instead of letting it rot on my computer, untouched since August.

In a way, I want that push.  Instead of turning in 60 pages of random short stories, I would have had to work harder on what a fiction writer is supposed to do--write books.  Short stories are fun to write, but they're also easy on the relative scale of fiction writing.  Just because you can do it several times in a row doesn't mean you deserve a Master's.  How many of us had to write short stories in high school or our undergraduate careers?  My guess is a lot.  So how is doing more of that supposed to merit an advanced degree?

I shouldn't be complaining.  Next semester, I will turn in my 60-page collection of short stories and hopefully get my Master's degree.  But part of me wishes that school had given me the kick in the ass I need to finish the one that got away.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Want to Write a Memoir? Start Here

Okay, so the semester is winding down and I might finally have a chance to get back to real (read: writing) life.  Yay!  This semester has been a butt-kicker from start to finish, but the good news is that I think I actually learned a few things.

The writing class I'm just finishing is about memoir, a genre in which I'd never written before.  It scared the crap out of me. Still does.  Skeletons should just stay in the closet, right?  I mean, most of us don't really want all our friends, family members, and neighbors reading about our weakest, most vulnerable moments.  But, as I learned, that's only a part of writing memoir.

What I Knew:  Memoir is hard.  Why should the average joe be interested in my life?  What about my personal trauma from, say, high school would make someone else want to put off going to bed in order to read about it?  Even if they started reading it, why would they care if they get to the end?  What's the freaking point of it all?

What I Learned:  Memoir is hard.  There's still no getting around it.  But the point isn't to dig up the worst trauma or your most embarrassing moment.  The point is to describe a person, a place, or a moment that meant something to you in a way that shows your reader what you learned from it.  It's not your high school trauma that's important, in other words.  It's how you deal with it.  It's how you move on.  It's how your narrative voice has changed because of all the things and people you've come into contact with.  So you don't have to write about abuse or rape or abandonment or setting a kitten on fire.  You could write about a day you stayed home from school and did nothing but watch cartoons all day.  But you have to tell your reader why that particular day mattered.  What happened that makes you return to that day, now, in your mind?  What brings you back there?  If you can explain that, you can write memoir.

What I'm Doing about It:  At the urging of my professor, I sent off the first piece I wrote for the class to a creative non-fiction journal called The Sun.  It may be a few months before I hear back from them, but in the meantime, I'm going to keep writing a few short memoir pieces.  I have one more piece due on Tuesday, which I'm about to revise.  Memoir will never replace fiction--not for me, at least.  But I did learn that you can use most of the techniques you already know from writing fiction to craft riveting scenes--it's just that they have to have actually happened, and you have to actually be one of the characters.  (Small catch, there.)   That's actually one of the huge issues relative to memoir, which hopefully I'll have time to write about tomorrow.  How truthful should a memoir be?  Are you lying if you dramatize a conversation?  Can your ass get sued for doing it?  I have a few sources that will weigh in the meantime, think about how you'd approach writing a memoir.  What are the scenes in your life that move you?  When and where did you learn something important?  The memory that surfaces might be the one you least expect.