Guest Post from a New MFA Student

I am happy to present this guest post from Deonne Kahler, who is about to begin the MFA adventure here in New York (at Queens College of The City University of New York). Please check back for a follow-up post from Deonne once her program gets underway. Enjoy!

A Fifth Reason to Go to Grad School? All the Ramen I Can Eat!

by Deonne Kahler

When I tell people I’m about to start an MFA program they say, Gee Deonne, you’ve already accumulated hundreds of clips (the result of writing for newspapers for seven years) so you must know how to string words together. Why the heck do you want to spend the money and time on a degree that might not increase your writing income one iota? (Question: is my use of the word “iota” further proof I don’t need an MFA?) And don’t you think you could just spend more time in bars (a la Hemingway, but without that nasty suicide business) and gather material that way? Don’t you think you should skip the academics, live life, and just write?

That’s perfectly fine advice, and I must admit it’s tempting to have a legitimate reason to spend more time in bars. But then I’d probably just end up writing some sad chronicle of my years battling alcoholism, involving overuse of the words “vomit,” “rock bottom,” and “rehab,” and lord knows we have enough of those.

The “just write” part is legitimate if you either feel like you already have a good grasp on craft, or you don’t and are prepared to learn by doing a lot of self-directed reading and writing. But if you’re anything like me that could take a long time, meaning, I’m a world-class procrastinator – I’m the Michael Phelps of procrastination. (Question: isn’t my willingness to use lame metaphors proof I do need an MFA?)

My reasons for going to grad school:

1. Focused, structured study of the art and craft of writing. I’ve yet to find a bartender who offered me a reading list, deadlines and critique.
2. A ready-made community of writers, both fledgling (students) and accomplished (faculty).
3. The chance to work on a literary journal (QC’s Ozone Park). This in tandem with my internship at The Feminist Press should give me excellent publishing and editorial experience.
4. Because I can. I’ve got the savings (for awhile, anyway), I’m entirely unencumbered, and I really, really, really want to do this. ‘Nuff said.

There’s only one thing I’m anxious about: grades. My undergrad experience in that department was, ahem, less than stellar, and I’m already anxious about that first grad school report card, because I’m pretty sure if it’s bad my parents will ground me. Other than that, I’m psyched for the experience. Like Michael Phelps before a race. (Somebody stop me.)

Here’s what I hope to accomplish at Queens:

1. Become a better writer. Duh.
2. Complete a manuscript. Whether that will be a novel or memoir remains to be seen, and I’m giving myself the first semester to decide. We don’t technically have to start our thesis (the manuscript) until second year, but I’m a slow writer and get anxious if I don’t have enough time to do something I care about. So I’m planning to start early.
3. Develop a daily writing practice. Up until now my non-freelance writing has been haphazard at best. I believe great writers are born from hard work and regular practice (how very Calvinist!), and since I do want to be great, or at least extra good, I’ll need the discipline of regular writing to carry me beyond the structure of grad school.

That’s where I’m at. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going, but if you don’t hear from me it means I sent home a terrible report card and am on restriction until I get my grades up, and I’d better quit my crying or I’ll really have something to cry about. Wish me luck.

Friday Find: Guest Post on the London Book Fair

Today we’re lucky to have a report on the London Book Fair direct from the United Kingdom. Wales-based BJ Epstein went to London for the occasion, and provides a guest post here. Thank you, BJ!

On April 14-16, the London Book Fair took place at Earl’s Court in London. The fact that the fair’s official directory was over 400 pages tells you something about how many attendees and exhibitors there were. Categories included everything from animal care and breeding to English as a foreign language, from computer books to religious texts, from fashion to military, and from paranormal to travel books.

The Arab world was the focus for this year’s fair, and that meant that there were many stands with information about various Arabic-speaking countries and their literature. Some offered traditional pastries, travel information, or fact sheets, too. The booth for Saudi Arabia had two very large models of mosques, the Great Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque. Another booth featured 1001 Inventions, an exhibit on what Muslims have contributed to the world, including vocabulary worlds and medical techniques. One of the many cafés at the fair offered foods such as hummus or kebabs.

As a translator, writer, and editor, I often had the sense that the fair wasn’t really for me. Publishers and agents were on the prowl, looking to buy and sell rights, and they weren’t always very friendly when people who were not there to do business came by. Meanwhile, printers, distributors, packagers, stationers, and other such exhibitors sat in their booths alone, seeming a bit lonely. Several times, while looking at books on display, I was eagerly asked what publisher I was from, and when I replied that I was a translator, people quickly lost interest and left me alone to browse. I had thought that publishers would want to talk to people who could serve to translate, edit, or promote their works, and not just to other publishers or literary agents.

Personally, I found it most interesting to talk to people from literary organizations and from magazines. I learned more about how literary organizations from places such as Russia or Thailand try to promote their works abroad and also about subsidies for translation (for more on this, see my blog).

Another part of the fair that I quite enjoyed was a presentation on e-books. I learned that sales for e-books have increased dramatically in the past year or so, especially in the case of academic texts (because students are used to reading on-screen and also appreciate the lower prices of e-books), romance novels, and niche books, among others. An example of a niche book that was given is one that teaches readers how to dance. An advantage of an e-book is that it can be embedded with videos or animation, so that instead of having to use both a book and a DVD, everything is together on one “page”, and readers can read and practice dancing at the same time. I had known very little about e-books before (despite having edited and produced one as a fundraiser for Bryn Mawr College), and I found it fascinating to hear about all the different formats, readers, and methods of promotion. If e-books catch on as the speaker predicted, this could be a real boon to writers who want to cut out the middleman and produce their own books, since e-self-publishing isn’t too respected at the moment.

There were several seminars and readings at the book fair, but I missed them all because of other activities. One thing I didn’t miss was the cooking demonstrations. Next to a very large display of recent cookbooks from around the world, chefs such as Yann Barault from Le Cordon Bleu (who made cod with morels while berating his assistant) or Hayden Wood from Australia (who improvised cocktails, dancing and shaking the bottles at the same time), tempted us with samples of their creations. Many organizations and countries had receptions at various points during the fair, as well, sometimes at restaurants or at ambassadors’ homes.

I was at the fair for many hours, studying all sorts of books from every corner of the planet, and by the end, I felt overwhelmed by all the works out there. I knew I’d never be able to read even a fraction of those books, even though, like many practicing writers, I am an avid reader. I spent the entire train ride back to Swansea reading, visions of all the piles of the books spurring me on.