Two Down, One to Go

Last month I finished the spring semester of my second year in the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA in Creative Writing Program. I’m on the three-year plan, on track to graduate one year from now.

This semester was the most demanding yet.  I took my first poetry course­—Craft of Poetry—which I compared to studying a foreign language (see Beginning Again, January 2013). I also signed up for five thesis credits, which required me to work diligently on my memoir manuscript. The workload was heavy:  reading, analyzing, and discussing at least a dozen poems each week; writing a poem a week and critiquing poems of my classmates; writing or revising a memoir chapter each week. No wonder my primary ambitions right now are to work crossword puzzles and sleep.

Friends have asked me if I’m glad that I’m in this program and what I’ve learned by going back to school.  To the first question, even on the most challenging days, I answer a wholehearted, “Yes.”   The answer to the second question is harder to quantify, but here’s some of what I’ve learned these past two years.
  • Narrative nonfiction is an art and a craft that draws on skills and techniques in structure, dialogue, scenes, character development, setting, and reflection. I’m studying the theory and honing my own skill through practice and experimentation.
  •  Practice and experimentation yield the best results with time and commitment to pen on paper, fingers on keyboard.
  •  Reading, particularly directed reading that includes analysis of craft techniques, is building my writer’s toolbox.  I’ve gained many tools by reading memoirs, essays, and short works in fiction, nonfiction, and prose poetry.
  •  Deadlines (either self- or teacher-imposed) motivate me, especially on days I question the value of my writing or feel pulled to other responsibilities—or pleasures.
  •  Reading and writing poetry and fiction help my nonfiction writing.
  • The writing profession requires promotion, networking, collaboration, and continuing education.

This next year will bring more learning, more experimentation, and more deadlines.  In the fall I’ll be in a nonfiction workshop—writing and revising new pieces as well as my memoir, reading and critiquing writing of classmates—and a course in literary journalism. That second course is a new one offered by nonfiction teacher Larry Cheek who describes how literary journalism, also known as narrative nonfiction, “…blends journalistic capture of events and personalities with narrative technique and style once assumed to be the domain of fiction.”  Along with Larry and four other students, I’ll be reading and analyzing work by, among others, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Joan Didion, and the first writer in this genre, George Orwell. Should be an enlightening return to my first love­—journalism.
Until I start that one more year to go, though, I’ll be reading more poetry (for fun) and maybe a novel or two, making my way through a stack of crossword puzzles, and catching up on some sleep.


  1. Iris, sharing your journey is a gift to those of us who travel a different path, peering wistfully through the fence at the world of creative self-fulfillment. Rather than viewing it as a selfish endeavor, I'm starting to see how your work enriches the rest of us. It inspires me to think about climbing that fence to enter this world myself. With gratitude, Karen Gilbert

  2. Karen, thank you for your supportive words. In contrast to my work as a nurse, I tend to lose sight of the potential for my writing to enrich others. And yet, I do believe that when we follow true calls to creativity, we can be of great service. I’m glad you’re feeling inspired to follow your own creative path; no doubt many of us will be enriched by that.

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