One of my favorite parts of “making up” my own MFA has been discovering new writers and teachers, through their work and by hearing them talk about writing. So I was thrilled to be in the audience when Rahna Reiko Rizzuto gave a wonderful, insightful keynote speech at last year’s VORTEXT conference. I was immediately struck by the fact that she did not have an MFA herself, although she now teaches in an MFA program at Goddard. It was gratifying and inspiring to hear Reiko explain how she learned valuable lessons about her process and the themes that drive her as she described the path of writing her award-winning memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning. She is also the author of the novel Why She Left Us, and the advisor of the national literary journal, Clockhouse. You can visit Reiko online at rahnareikorizzuto.com.
I’m looking forward to taking Reiko’s workshop at this year’s VORTEXT conference in May. (Registration is now open!) In the meantime, I asked her some of our standing MFA Project questions and am ready to put her advice into practice. Thank you, Reiko. —Rebecca
What advice would you offer to writers and poets who aren’t part of an MFA program but are trying to grow and learn in their craft?
Read. Read what you love; read what you’ve never heard of; read with stickies on your side table, a notebook in your lap and questions in your mind. You can learn everything from books, and once you buy them, they are your teachers. No tuition necessary.
I do teach in an MFA program, and bear with me; I need to tell you about it to contextualize my advice. Goddard College created the first low-residency program; ours is the model all the others have copied, and it was conceived as a hybrid solution: writers could come to campus at the beginning of every semester for a week of residency, and then go back to their lives at home and write with the support of a mentor.
In a way, it’s the anti-MFA, but with a community and a teacher thrown in. The writer is working at home alone, on track to finish a full manuscript in two years, and while she is writing, she is also reading at least 45 books and using those books to learn to see how the author writes, the choices the author makes, and their effect on the reader. So when I am advising students – here’s some free MFA advice – I tell them to ask their questions to their reading lists: How do I speed up this dialogue, jump from scene to scene, end my chapters, order my chapters, develop my mystery, describe a room, show and tell at the same time, place my turning points and climaxes? Whatever your question, you can pick up a book and see how that author answered it. Maybe that person’s solution works for you, maybe not, but if you are a writer you will have shelves full of books and a well-used library card, so consult another one.
I love the Goddard program. That’s why I teach there. And if you are on the fence about an MFA and you have the resources, I highly recommend it (in fact I will get on the telephone with you to talk about it.) But I will tell you: I don’t have an MFA…
I’m a self-taught writer, and I learned exactly this way. When I was writing my first novel, I picked up books I loved and mapped them out. How many chapters? (Seriously.) What is the trajectory for this character, and what’s going down for the other one? I identified the turning points, looked for the places where I was surprised and traced the clues backward so I could see how the author placed them. And because I taught myself, those are lessons I will never forget.
What is the hardest thing to learn about writing?
How to know what’s really on the page. We know what we wanted to say. We know what we thought we said. But if you are writing fiction and building a world, your pages may be filled with way too much of what you know about the world and not nearly enough action, for example. Or exactly the opposite: maybe we can’t see your world at all. Memoirists often forget that their readers don’t know their world as well as they do, or they fall into the trap of thinking that everything that ever happened to them is fascinating. I have been guilty of all of these things, and I will also say that all of them are perfectly appropriate for your first draft. I often tell my students that they won’t really know how to edit, or whether to add or throw out, until they get to the end of their draft and discover (yes, discover) what their story is really about. That’s the process.
But the process takes you all the way to the finished book, through draft after draft after fourteenth draft, and along the way you might move things around quite a bit, until you have forgotten what is there, or what it was supposed to be doing in your book or story. A fresh set of eyes can be helpful here – yours, if you can put it in a drawer for a couple of months, or those of a trusted writer/reader. When you are working with readers, even smart, observant ones who love you, it’s very tricky to know how to respond to their advice. You might not agree with their comments, or want to follow their suggestions. You might agree too readily and lose sight of your momentum. When you have come to a point where you have done everything you can, and you give it to a reader, the trickiest part is to use their vision of your work to see it fresh through your own eyes and make the changes accordingly.
Here’s an example. Recently, a reader flagged a section of my new manuscript where a retrospective narrator came in, and she said, “Where is this voice coming from? Where is this person speaking from? I haven’t seen this before, have I?” One answer would be, yes, you have been seeing it for 100 pages, and to chalk her comment up to poor reading. But in fact, the problem was my poor writing. Up until that point, my retrospective narrator has been seamless, but now she was sticking out oddly and raising questions. I looked at the structure of the chapter and saw how choppy it was: suddenly I had kicked the reader out of the fictional dream through my chronological shifts, and as she scrambled to get her feet, she grabbed onto what she could and questioned it. My solution, then, is not to go through the manuscript and make the retrospective narrator more obvious throughout, or to explain it in that paragraph so it is not confusing, but to straighten out my timeline. So, her read, but my fresh eyes. Does that make sense?
This takes practice. But for writers who choose not to do an MFA, community is critical. Find a group of people you trust and meet. Keep meeting. Their feedback will help you with that fresh look, and will also help you to keep writing. The pressure of deadlines is priceless.
What role does physical or spiritual activity play in your writing practice?
Meditation has been enormously helpful when I do it. But we don’t always do what’s good for us, do we? One thing I have learned about my own process is that I have two voices in my head: the writer, or source, and the editor. The editor would love to preserve pages, and is also very good at comparing my first drafts and fresh ideas to the published product of years of revision, then finding the new work wanting. Surprise, surprise!
Mediation is one technique I use to tap into source. Sitting, quieting the mind, waiting until it spins down and stops chattering and planning. The other thing I have found very helpful is getting off the computer and back to pen and paper. Besides the fact that it’s harder to be distracted by email that way, it forces me to start over, even for a moment, rather than cutting and pasting and moving sentences that I’ve fallen in love with around until I find some place for them.
The other thing I do, which qualifies as a spiritual practice to me, is use the Tarot. My deck of choice is Rachel Pollack’s Shining Tribe. I’m a self-taught, Rachel-inspired Tarot reader, and I draw cards for characters, motivations, the essence or direction or heart of the story, what sensibility this particular section or issue needs, for example, and then I pull out a notebook and write about the cards. It sounds a little arbitrary perhaps, but, as I think Rachel herself may even have described it to me, I view the cards as a tool that a person can use to remind herself of what she already knows. Whether you think of that as a higher self, a muse, the creative self, I find that the Tarot can silence the judgmental, editorial demon on my shoulder and open possibilities. My writing is always better for it.
Are there any craft books you recommend for writers creating their own MFA-type education?
Although there are many very good books out there, my top pick is Handling the Truth, by Beth Kephart. The book is subtitled “On the Writing of Memoir,” but I think it’s a must for any prose writer. The topics she covers – like landscape, voice, sensation, detail, verb tense – they are all essential to good writing. Beth is the acclaimed and award-winning author of more than twenty books – memoir, fiction, nonfiction, young adult, middle grade – as well as a teacher. Handling the Truth is a meditation on how we write and why we write, and also how we read and what we should read, all with a dash of memoir and an irresistible voice. Her emphasis on reading mirrors my own thoughts about the best way to learn writing. She takes you through, shows you how she is reading and responding to certain memoirs, and then includes an extensive list of suggested memoirs and why she is recommending them. Plus, exercises! It’s an MFA-in-a-book.