Day 2 of the One Story Workshop: To MFA or Not to MFA? That is the question.

Yesterday was the second day of the week all of us at One Story have been waiting for. My internship thus far has been two months of craziness, love, and a lot of hard work, and whispers of the workshop at the end of the summer have been filling me with anticipation since I found out about it back in October. The week is finally here and it feels surreal – writers, agents, educators, and editors have been swarming the Center for Fiction like book-lovers at a library.

After a catered breakfast, students broke down into their individual workshops, taught by One Story contributing editor Will Allison and former contributing editor Marie Helene-Bertino. Then, after lunch, we all gathered on the 6th floor to listen to Simon Van Booy talk about character, point of view, and more character. A fine British gentleman and the author of The Secret Lives of People in Love and Everything Beautiful Began After, Simon charmed us all with his quips and his accent. He told us creating a character in the first person point of view is so involved that it becomes like method acting. In every real life situation you encounter, you must ask: what would Polly or Victor or Leo the Leopard do? As Simon says, get your feet wet!

Simon also told us about the importance of flat characters to offset round characters and provide humor. “Flat characters are the unsung heroes of characterization,” he said, and discussed how Shakespeare was a master of flat characters. The drunken gatekeeper in Macbeth provided comic relief when Duncan was dying upstairs. In Camus’s The Stranger, Mersault’s overly violent neighbor Raymond allows him to give his own life philosophy without just plopping it in the book.

Later, at the evening cocktail hour and panel, we had the opportunity to hear about MFA programs. Representatives from Sarah Lawrence, Warren Wilson, Vermont College, and Manhattanville College told us what we get out of an MFA, how to choose one, how to get into one, and how to pay for it. Some MFA advice from the pros:

  1. There’s no rush to do an MFA at a certain time of your life – right after college, for example. Go when you have time for it and are burning to write, as they say.
  2. When choosing writing samples, send those that reflect the style of writing you wish to develop, not necessarily what you think they want to see. That way you will end up in a program that will encourage your personal voice.
  3. Writing sample advice #2: Pick two or three different pieces. If one is absolutely terrible, maybe the second will redeem you.
  4. Tenacity and persistence is impressive, as long as every reapplication demonstrates some growth.
  5. When in the MFA program, get the most out of it by putting your writing before your part-time job, volunteer work, or internships.
  6. But still involve yourself in those things. They will help you make connections you might need to find a job in the publishing world or get your own work out there.
  7. When faced with a should-I-or-should-I-not situation, remember that whether or not you choose to do an MFA, the agony and joy of the writing life is available to you whenever you decide to pick up the pen and paper.

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