There are definitely things you don’t learn in an MFA program, things that are necessary to becoming a successful writer. Now that I am done, I have come to understand this. I guess I’m willing to excuse it— obviously no grad program can cover everything, and every student makes choices about what to take and who to take it with. And there are always the arguments by anti-MFA folks about how if you need someone to teach you to be a successful writer you’ll never be a successful writer. Yeah, yeah.
But I’ve been thinking about my struggle with revision, and about wildguppy‘s comment on it, in which she describes having similar revision woes. There’s no doubt that revising a piece of writing, whether it’s a short story or a poem or a full-length memoir or novel, is hard. It requires patience and a clear head and, somehow, distance from your own creative work.
But I was looking back on my MFA experience, and I realized that revision was not part of the program. I was lucky enough to take a course on “writing the nonfiction book” which gave me an understanding of how to go about constructing something longer than an essay. And, we had to write book proposals for the class so that when we finished our nonfiction books we’d be able to submit them to agents. In this respect the class was practical, helpful, and informative. But I realize now that we skipped a step: Revision! In fact, in none of my workshops was I ever required to revise a piece I had turned in previously. The only way to get help with a rewrite was to turn in the revised piece to another workhop, which to me always seemed a waste when you could be turning in something new. Plus, the students in the 2nd workshop probably wouldn’t have seen the pre-revision version and so wouldn’t be able to comment on whether the changes you made were good or bad.
So now, as I try to revise 270 pages of a book, along with a number of other essays and short stories that have been shelved since I produced and workshopped them in my MFA program, I am lost. To be fair, I can’t blame my MFA program for everything. I am, after all, inexperienced at writing books, and very inexperienced at revising my own work. But looking back, I see that a class in revision would have been a huge help. There’s probably no magic revision formula, but having an idea of where to begin, or another writer’s process would be very, very helpful.