Megan asked: I’ve long considered getting an MFA in creative writing. But will an MFA really make me a better writer? Or should I stay on my current path of writing and reading a ton? What are the pros/cons of getting an MFA? Thanks!
Nancy asked: I don’t get writer’s block, but the thing that stalls my writing engine for hours is stopping to find the right metaphor when I need it. Do you have any exercises that will help me get rolling more quickly?
First things first: would an MFA program make you a better writer? Yes. But will “writing and reading a ton” make you a better writer too? Also yes. I’ve said before that you don’t need an MFA to get published (click here to read) and it certainly isn’t the only path to being a better writer.
But here’s my caveat. The act of writing itself helps you get better, but there’s one more ingredient you need: a good critical reader or readers to tell you what’s working and what’s not in that writing. This is probably the best thing about an MFA program, frankly. It delivers a captive audience of a dozen or more great readers who will workshop everything you write as fast as you can write it. You learn not just from what they find in your work, but the strengths and weakness you find in theirs. But if you can find a critique group or critique partner online, through shorter workshops (the Iowa summer program is incredible), or in some other way, you’ll continue to grow and improve as a writer – without the MFA price tag. It’s a very personal choice, but the good news is that there are lots of possible ways forward.
Now for the metaphor question.
I had a HUGE lightbulb moment about metaphors a few years ago, thanks to Sands Hall, whose workshop I took at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival (that same program I mentioned above.) Before that I just considered a metaphor a metaphor: they were either lovely and apt or dead and clumsy. But when Sands described how she made each character’s point of view distinct in her book Catching Heaven, she mentioned how important it was that each character’s metaphors were true to that character. And that was the lightbulb. A rancher will use different metaphors than a schoolteacher. Even if the book is in third person and not first, if the point of view is close-in to the character, you want to apply that character’s “filter” to everything – including the metaphors.
I took this to an extreme in my book The Kitchen Daughter, where the narrator Ginny is so obsessed with food and cooking — and so uncomfortable dealing with the wider world — that she filters absolutely everything through the lens of food. She bumps into a shoulder and it feels “like the shank end of a ham”; the voices of the people in her family she compares to orange juice, tomato juice, spearmint, espresso. In most cases your characters will draw from a larger pool, but still, the idea that there is a pool, and that it comes from that character’s particular bias and experience, that’s clutch.
So to answer the question: if you have trouble generating metaphors while you’re writing, I would suggest working with each point-of-view character and generating metaphors that fit the character. A fisherman who digs his own bait might compare the leftover crumbs of a chocolate cake to the dirt in which he stores his earthworms. An overworked Starbucks barista could look at those same crumbs and see coffee grounds. A compulsive overeater may not analyze the crumbs at all, but see only the absence of the cake, which she has guiltily scarfed. After you rehearse this technique enough, it may come more naturally, and you’ll be able to generate them in the moment as you’re writing, so the need for a metaphor won’t bring you to a halt.
Any other suggestions, WU’ers?
(image via Flickr Creative Commons; source: Aku)