Thursday, October 29, 2009

Having a Hard TIme Growing Up

By Casey Tolfree

I know I've been absent but I've been working a lot and had a lot of homework, excuses, excuses. I had my second fiction workshop today and I'm discouraged. Not because my classmates didn't like my piece but because I feel like they are clinging for dear life onto what our teacher thinks. I also feel like my piece isn't receiving the criticism it should be getting.

First off, my teacher sort of pigeon-holed my piece as YA - and I've written YA before, I'm good at it but APT 509 isn't YA fiction. I read YA and no offense but I've never seen a YA piece about a twenty-four year old - ever. My narrator Riley is 24. She's falling in love, learning the ropes, writing a whole lot ... the things I am doing and then people tell me she's unrealistic and I think wait a second - do I exist because I'm doing these things. I'm 23.

The view of adulthood my classmates are holding onto is so rigid. Riley has a job, pays her bills, supports herself, makes her own decision - I think that qualifies her as an adult whether she watches teen soaps or speaks commonly. Being an adult doesn't qualify you as smart. I mean Riley is smart but like me she talks like a normal person and then I am told she doesn't sound like a 24-year old. I don't understand. What is a 24-year old supposed to be like. Am I going to "grow up" in March when I turn 24? Are my teen soap opera collections going to get sold on eBay? Unlikely, so why can't my character be these things?

I wanted criticism on the plot moves and a few people gave me vague answers but generally I got stuff that really isn't relevant to my revisions. APT 509 is in it's 5th revision - it's not a first draft. Riley is not going to change. She's a person, she has flaws, she makes mistakes and I like her how she is. To me (and my friends) she is real. To my classmates she seems silly.

If I get an opportunity this semester to workshop a third time, I'm not going to finish workshopping APT 509. I almost feel like it's futile. I'm going to introduce my novel - though God knows they are going to call that YA too, when it's nowhere close to YA.

In other news, I just finished my first graduate school essay (not very exciting) and started my full-length play for class (very exciting). Both are coming a long nicely.

Victor LaValle is coming to Adelphi in the Spring. I'm taking his workshop. I'm excited he sounds like an interesting writer.

I'm enjoying my program but I feel like it's not okay to write fun, commercial work and that's what I do. I like happy endings and I want them. Why is that so wrong?


  1. This is a really interesting post. I think audience is one of the most slippery questions writers have to face.

    I think you might have to take their critiques with a grain of salt, but maybe don't dismiss them just because they weren't entirely what you hoped. This line really stuck out to me- "To me (and my friends) she is real. To my classmates she seems silly." What is it about your friends as readers vs. your classmates as readers? Is there a way to blend their separate strengths (and weaknesses?) to really discover what is or isn't working?

    Also, who SAYS YA can't have protagonists who are 24? YA readers might enjoy it. At the very least, maybe what you're writing can't be defined so easily. It has YA elements and elements that aren't YA (yay! more readers!). It's too bad your classmates are only seizing onto the YA elements, though, which is too bad.

    What are teen soap operas? How are they different from normal soap operas?

  2. Teen soap operas are like Degrassi (which I love), right? A lot of what comes on The N lol I'd never watch normal soaps, but I have an obsession with Degrassi and Secret Life of the American Teenager. If that's what you're meaning.

    Like Margosita, I really hope you are able to see what exactly is making your work come off silly to your class. Just so you don't miss what could be a lesson. I had to do this recently when my stuff was slipping into the sentimental. I urge you to consider embracing the suck:

    I think one of the biggest things about MFA programs is they help you to really question your own work. Can you comb through APT 509, maybe even line by line, and ask yourself if any elements are silly? In my workshops, even though it's poetry, there is often mention if we "buy" a line or certain actions in the piece. They aren't buying your 24 year old. It helps me to know what they aren't buying. I mean, we're mostly telling lies, right? Some lies are more believable than others. I would guess that good fiction contains the most believable lies. Let them help you :)

    Maybe you could meet with the professor individually to discuss the piece. I just did that because I wanted to be sure that I wasn't slipping into the sentimental with a sequence of poems before I continued them. Meeting with the professor helped give me the confidence to continue.

  3. I think also that characterizing your work as commercial, depending on how you are conceptualizing and presenting it to your class, may be an issue too. Anything noted as "commercial" would probably set off little alarms in heads of most MFA students simply because of the stigma associated with such writing. See The Da Vinci Code for a prime example of the kind of simple, schlocky writing that is typically associated with "commercial writing"--of course, Stephen King is a noted "commercial writer," but there is an ocean of difference between him and Dan Brown. I guess my question is how are you perceiving this project? Are you thinking about it as just your writing, or trying to funnel a specific (and marketable) audience into the way you are writing it? I am curious about this and about Adelphi's relationship to so-called "commercial writing." I want to know more...please tell me.

  4. hey - i am not in an mfa (yet - i am applying this year) - but i've been reading the blog and i hope it's ok to comment.

    your post made me think of curtis sittenfeld's "prep." i don't read YA but i read prep and loved it. it was sittenfeld's first novel, if i'm not mistaken, and she went to iowa, and i bet that she faced some tough scrutinizing when/if she workshopped parts of prep at the writers' workshop.

    obviously i don't know to what extent your story is autobiographical but it seems to me like you have a lot in common with riley (your age, a writer, likes the same things you do) so maybe it's hard to hear criticisms of a character you so closely relate to?

    ANYWAY the real reason i am commenting is a question - you might have mentioned this before but - is apt 509 a novel? novella? what's the approx length and how much do you workshop at a time? just curious for selfish, logistical reasons as a current applicant.

    thanks for sharing. this blog is really informative.

  5. I think people here have offered some good suggestions. I was in a screenwriting workshop where this writer was getting annoyed because we all told him his character and his story weren't believable. He kept saying, "But this really happened." And finally he busted out with the fact that he was really writing his own life experience and therefore he knew better than us whether or not it was "believable." The teacher told him that just because something is true doesn't mean it's a good story or even authentic unless we writers make it authentic. This is what I think Jonterri was saying about the concept of "not buying it." I've caught myself writing in a way at times that was too self-conscious of the fact that I was creating a story. Sometimes we accidentally make the reader too aware that they are reading "a story" instead of going with you on a journey or having an experience. I don't know if that makes sense or if that even applies to your situation, but maybe it helps. (If not, ignore the whole thing.)Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

  6. Something we talk about in nonfiction is remembering that readers outside of class/your friends won't know the nuances of you and thus won't be able to fill in the gaps on the page about your person. It could be that, with a closely-related narrator, you and your friends are filling in gaps because it's a life y'all are so familiar with.

    As for categorizing, forget it. Just write. There are more books than you think that get the adult/YA distinction by the publisher/bookstore, which is really far out of your hands at that point.

    Hope things start to look up for you.

  7. I have heard this complaint from more than one writer who even leans towards anything "commercial" or "genre."

    I will say, on the other side, I recently did an editorial assist for a writer's first novel that was definitely in the vein of twilight frenzy but with a 23 year protagonist. The narrator, however, spoke in what felt more like a YA "voice." Not in a bad way, but it definitely felt like a YA book wheras I think "Prep" (as mentioned) is a great example of writing about a teen while the book doesn't seem particular "genre".

    Again, not that anything is wrong with genre. If your fellow students can't get past that I'd suggest giving it to someone to read who doesn't know you at all, like perhaps a critique on Zoetrope?

    Keep at it!


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