Retrospective on my First Semester in an MFA Program

I’ve turned in all my assignments, given all my grades, filled out all my teacher evaluations, and mentally checked out from school. And I’m actually sad that it’s over. I think that the first semester went really well. I am sure that I’ll eventually get tired of this, but right now I would not be averse to doing this MFA thing forever. Let me go through the many things that I think have been great.

Time

The workload is not high. We teach three 50-minute classes a week. And out-of-class prep time is no more than 7 hours (2 hours of which are grading). So that’s about 10 hours of actual work for our stipends (which, as any googling would tell you, run to about $22,000 a year). And then the workshop is 2.5 hours but has no out-of-class commitment other than the writing that you’re already doing. Our readings class is 3 hours and maybe another 2-3 hours of out-of-class readings. And then, for various incomprehensible institutional reasons, I have to take Spanish, which is about 5 hours of work every week. All together, that’s maybe 20-25 hours of work every week. Which is great! I mean, that’s a half-time job that pays 22k a year and has health benefits.

Furthermore, since I recently started logging the actual amount of time that I spend on various tasks, I can tell you exactly how productive I am able to be. The program started at the beginning of September, and since then, I have written for an average of 10.0 hours every week (Low of 3.0; High of 15.1) and read for an average of 11 hours every week (Low of 4; High of 18). As you can see from my table, I’m a bit less productive than I was in the summer before the MFA…but not that much lower. And part of that could just be seasonal variation, too (I’ve recently crunched nine years of data and realized that I’m much more productive during the summer months)

Task

Workload (hours)

Fall ’12

Summer ’12

Teaching

10

N/A

Workshop

2.5

N/A

Readings class

6

N/A

Spanish

5

N/A

Avg. Writing Time

10.0

12.0

Avg. Reading Time

11

17

I do want to get both my writing and reading numbers up (to somewhere around 15 hours a week, each). But, as a baseline, this isn’t bad. Even amidst all the dislocation of moving and starting a new program and learning how to teach, there’s still time to get stuff done. And it’s easy time, too. I tended to get all my writing done by about 5 or 6 PM, and usually had plenty of time to hang out and see people and browse the internet and do everything else that needs doing. At times, I did feel a little strain, and a few balls did get dropped, but nothing major.

The Writing

Was a little rocky. Slush-reading and workshop, when combined, made me super self-critical of myself, and I was finding it hard to start and finish stories. I also found it very difficult to work on the revision of my novel (since, to my eyes, it looked very bad). However, I did manage to finish the requisite stories for workshop. And I think the self-critical effect has started to abate. Over December, things got much easier

Teaching

Not much to say here. The Hopkins students are better at being students than I am at teaching them. They come to class. They do the reading (or at least fake it really well). They turn in their assignments. They try to write well. And although they can be quiet, they’re really good during discussion (after being prompted). I teach 9 AM and, after the first few classes, I never really felt anxious about going in and teaching. I pretty much knew it was gonna turn out okay (even if I was teaching something I was absurdly unqualified to teach, like “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

The class is a mix of people who are taking it to fulfill their writing requirement and people who are really interested in creative writing (some people are both, of course). Some of the writing is beginning writing, but…that’s okay. As I noted when talking about the slush pile, I’m really not offended by beginner’s writing. Like…you don’t need to be good at something that you’ve: a) never done before; and b) are doing for fun. If I went out and took a tennis lesson, I’d hope that the tennis teacher could look at my own pathetic attempts in the same light.

That having been said, I do see everyone in my class as someone who could potentially pursue writing as a vocation, and I try to give people the sort of advice and guidance that I think I could have used at that age. Mostly, I tell them to submit their work. Err…and to write in scenes.

I’m not a perfect teacher. I’m not even sure that I’m a very good teacher. I think that I guided my discussions too heavily and forced the students to guess what I wanted to hear. It was only as the class was ending that I started to figure out how to lead discussion with a gentler hand. But I’m new at this too, and I hope that by the time I leave here, I’ll have improved considerably.

Workshop

…is good. Alice McDermott was a delightful instructor. At Hopkins, we have her every Fall, so I’ll see her again next year. When workshop is good, there’s not really much to say about it. It’s just…workshop. You have nine peer who call you out for the things you’re doing poorly (hopefully decreasing your odds of doing them poorly again) and you have one instructor who hopefully gives you a paradigm-shifting way of thinking about things.

But when workshop is bad…shit gets crazy! I feel like bad workshops are really both a symptom and a cause of bad social dynamics. What I liked about our workshop was that: a) I didn’t feel like having a story that was well-received in workshop would make you more (or less) popular outside of workshop; and b) I didn’t feel like being popular outside of workshop would accept the reception of your story by the workshop. Now, obviously, to some degree these are false feelings on my part (since we cannot help being unconsciously affected by how much we like a person). But still, at least that effect was dampened.

Part of the credit for this goes to Alice McDermott, who leads a good workshop and does not play favorites. But most of the credit goes to my fellow students. They are awesome.

The People

I am sure that my feelings re: my classmates will eventually become more mixed, as we get to know each other better. Perhaps as soon as this winter! But right now, I like them a lot. All of the ten people in the fiction program are really friendly and interesting. I’m generally pretty friendly and get along well with most people, but I really like my MFA peeps. They’re fun to be around. Most of them decamped from Baltimore a week ago, and I miss them. I think there’s not a one of them that I don’t feel close to. They’re the super-best. (Oh, err…I like all the poets too…)

The City

Aside from the weather not being as good as it is in Oakland, Baltimore is great (for me). Traffic is light. It’s easy to find parking. It’s super cheap. I live in a two-bedroom apartment for which I pay $850 a month (I have an office!). And I can walk to campus every day: my commute is fifteen minutes of walking! Also, it’s very close to DC, where I grew up and have family and friends. And I’ve gotten to know some local Baltimore-area science fiction people, which has also been great. The SF scene around here feels very vibrant. All in all, I don’t think I could’ve gone to school in a better city (for me). However, the area around Hopkins’ campus is most definitely not a hip or a happening place. So if you’re thinking about coming here just, well…keep that in mind.

Okay, that’s it for that, I think.

Traffic to my blog has increased by 250%

It’s especially appropriate that I am writing this post today, given that yesterday I got more page views in a single day than I ever have before. That makes me really happy.  This blog has been one of this year’s biggest successes.

You know, ever since high school I’ve wanted to be a blogger. I like to opine. I have tons of thoughts. And I have a fairly charming confessional style. But sometimes it has felt like my efforts were doomed. The heyday of blogging is, admittedly, over. And even if it wasn’t, I really have no idea how to find an audience.

However, if you look at the following graph, you can see that I must be doing something right:

BlogTraffic

What you’re looking at is a roughly 3x increase increase in monthly pageviews between this year and the equivalent month in 2011. The absolute numbers are still very low (I doubt that I have more than 100-200 actual readers, even if I include people on RSS feeds [who wouldn’t necessarily be counted in these statistics]). But there is a hugely upwards trend!

BlogTrafficbyYear

As you can see, this blog has been on WordPress for four years. And, in each of those years, traffic has at least doubled. No longer do I make jokes about how the only people who read this blog are my friends. That’s just not true anymore (though I am surprised, and gratified, by how many of my real life friends do read it).

The biggest reason why traffic has spiked recently is that I have been posting much more frequently. Early this year, I got tired of losing readers due to non-activity, so I decided to commit myself to writing three posts every week. And, to a large extent, I’ve been able to meet that goal.

BloggingStatsByYear
Note, this also counts posts to my Livejournal, in the years before I started this blog.

But, by itself, increased posting volume would only account for about half of the roughly 250% increase in traffic this year. The rest of it is either due to new readers or more dedicated readers (ones who read more pages per visit). And I feel like it’s probably the former. God knows where you come from, but I am very happy to have you. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m trying to consciously grow the readership of this blog. That’s one reason I’ve become so much more active on Twitter and Facebook lately. I’ve also been commenting much more often on other blogs. However, if I’m been doing this right (and I kind of feel like I am) you probably haven’t noticed this. And if you have, then you haven’t interpreted it as self-promotion activity. (And I don’t think my social networking activity is really that self-promotional. It’s mostly just an extension of what I’ve been trying to do with this blog, which is have fun and form connections with people.)

Anyway, I don’t know whether my traffic will continue to grow exponentially, but…err…I really hope it does?

(Yes, I do realize that these statistics are woefully inadequate. Up until recently, WordPress only measured pageviews, not unique visitors. Now that I have Google Analytics, I should start getting much better data).

I dunno. Let me ask you. How did you find this site?

Reasons for reading five or more of an author’s books (with statistics! and lists!)

Nowadays, I never consciously read deep into a writers’ ouevre. I’m almost always ready to content myself with his or her 1-3 most critically acclaimed works. For instance, I really loved Vanity Fair, but I’ve never even been tempted to read Pendennis or Henry Esmond or any of Thackeray’s other novels. I figure that there’s a reason that you never hear much about those novels.

This stands in stark contrast to my younger days, when I had considerable author loyalty. I would not be surprised to learn that I’ve read 10 or 15 or 20 books by Mercedes Lackey or Anne McCaffrey or Isaac Asimov or David Weber. But when my reading expanding, the ardor of love for particular authors also changed. I don’t think I’m capable of feeling as much affection for an author as the twelve year old Rahul felt for Asimov. There’s just too much else out there that’s worth reading. If a book merely gives me a bit more of what I enjoyed about another book, then I usually consider that book a failure. For me to enjoy it, a book also has to be somewhat new.

However, I recently read a post on the Guardian’s book blog in which the site attempted to compile a list of 32 American writers who had four notable books. In many cases, they turned up books that I’d never heard of (like Cather’s One Of Ours). At least one of their selections, Edith Wharton’s Glimpses of the Moon, was sufficiently intriguing to me that I read through it. As I did so, it occurred to me that this was the fifth Edith Wharton novel that I’d read, and that this was a rather high number. It made me curious about what other authors had repeatedly caught my interest.

In order to create the following list, I drew upon a log of books-completed that only goes back to January 1st, 2009, so it’s certainly not exhaustive (if it was, the top twenty picks would probably all be writers who I loved when I was twelve). But I did find it somewhat interesting.

For instance, what the hell is Nabokov doing at the top? I mean, Nabokov is awesome, but he’s definitely not my most favorite writer. I almost never talk about him or blog about him or recommend him to other people. And I certainly never intended to read nine of his works. The answer for him is a bit complicated.

And Marcel Proust is, well, that’s kind of a cheat. All of his novels are really one novel. You need to read them all in order to get the merit badge.

The rest of the writers seem to fall into four categories

  • Authors Who Genuinely Wrote Four Or More Interesting Books – The authors I put into this category are ones who wrote four or more books which are of roughly similar quality. Authors like Emile Zola and Upton Sinclair don’t really have one stand-out masterpiece. They have a number of different books that elucidate their different qualities.
  • Authors Whose Masterpiece I Loved So Much That I Had To Read Everything Else They Wrote – Jane Austen’s Emma was so good that I was almost compelled to read all her other novels. None were equal to Emma (except, perhaps, for Pride and Prejudice), but they were all fairly interesting.
  • Authors Who Also Wrote A Significant Quantity Of Fairly Entertaining Non-Fiction – George Orwell, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy, and David Foster Wallace fall into this category. I loved their fictional work, but they’ve each only produced 3 or fewer worthwhile volumes of fiction. However, I have different standards for nonfiction. Somehow, it’s easier on the brain. If I can find a nonfiction writer whose work is of high literary quality, I’ll usually read everything they write. All of the above are exceptional nonfiction writers. In Orwell’s case, I read his two major novels before 1/1/9, but, since then, I’ve read almost all of his nonfiction output. And it was spectacular.
  • Authors Who Are Just A Hell Of A Lot Of Fun – Okay, I read the first six books in Charlaine Harris’ vampire series (the one that True Blood is based on) during the course of a single weekend. That was a great weekend. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and C.S. Forester are standbys of mine. They’re always good for an evening when I’m dead-tired or depressed or sick or otherwise unwilling to put up with a lot of shit from a book.

Now that I’ve gone through these reasons, I think I can finally understand the problem of Nabokov’s pre-eminence on this list. It’s not that I like him the best…it’s just that all of these reasons apply to him. After reading Lolita, I was so impressed that I was almost compelled to read more books by him. He’s also written at least four very interesting books (Lolita, Pale Fire, Pnin, and Ada). He wrote a few non-fiction works that I’ve also read. And he’s also kind of fun and easy. Or , at least, fun and short. The most recent Nabokov that I completed was The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight, which is something I picked up because it was short and I felt like finishing a book in an evening. And because, no matter what, you always know that Nabokov is gonna tell the story in a zippy, spritely manner.

But I’m still not happy about this. No more Nabokov!

 

Vladimir Nabokov – 9

Invitation to a Beheading
Pale Fire
Lolita
Pnin
Lectures on Russian Literature
The Defence
Lectures On Don Quixote
Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight

 

Marcel Proust – 7

Swann’s Way
In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower
Guermantes Way
Sodom and Gomorrah
The Prisoner
The Fugitive
Finding Time Again

 

Emile Zola – 7

Germinal
Nana
L’Assommoir
The Masterpiece
La Bete Humaine
The Earth
La Debacle

 

Jane Austen – 6

Emma
Sense and Sensibility
Persuasion
Northanger Abbey
Mansfield Park
Pride and Prejudice

 

Raymond Chandler – 6

The Big Sleep
Farewell, My Lovely
High Window
The Little Sister
The Lady In The Lake
The Long Goodbye

 

C.S. Forester – 6

The Happy Return
A Ship Of The Line
Flying Colors
Commodore Hornblower
Lord Hornblower
Midshipman Hornblower

 

Charlaine Harris – 6

Dead Until Dark
Living Dead In Dallas
Club Dead
Dead to the World
Dead as a Doornail
Definitely Dead

 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 6

News of a Kidnapping
Chronicle of a Death Foretold
No One Writes To The Colonel
Clandestine in Chile
Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor
The General In His Labyrinth

 

Leo Tolstoy – 6

Anna Karenina
What is Art?
A Confession
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
War and Peace
The Cossacks

 

Willa Cather – 5

Death Comes For The Archbishop
Oh Pioneers!
My Antonia
A Lost Lady
The Professor’s House

 

Charles Dickens – 5

Bleak House
David Copperfield
Oliver Twist
Great Expectations
Hard Times

 

Graham Greene – 5

The Third Man
Our Man In Havana
Travels With My Aunt
The Power And The Glory
Brighton Rock

 

Dashiell Hammett – 5

The Maltese Falcon
Red Harvest
The Glass Key
The Dain Curse
The Thin Man

 

Sinclair Lewis – 5

Babbitt
Main Street
Arrowsmith
Elmer Gantry
Dodsworth

 

George Orwell – 5

Down and Out in Paris and London
Homage to Catalonia
Road to Wigan Pier
Burmese Days
Fifty Essays

 

Anthony Trollope – 5

The Warden
The Way We Live Now
Barchester Towers
Autobiography
Doctor Thorne

 

David Foster Wallace – 5

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
Infinite Jest
Consider the Lobster: Essays
Oblivion: Stories
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

 

Evelyn Waugh -5

Decline and Fall
Scoop
Vile Bodies
A Handful of Dust
Put Out More Flags

My Reading Speed

            Whilst reading Vanity Fair on my Kindle, I noticed that I was finishing about 5% of the book for every hour of reading. It’s a pretty long book, and I noticed that the rate at which I was going through it was fairly reliable. Eventually, I popped on over to Project Gutenberg (where I got my version) and pasted the entire book into Microsoft Word, where I saw that it contains (not including the legalese Gutenberg back-matter) almost exactly 300,000 words. A little division revealed my effective reading speed is about 15,000 words per hour, or 250 wpm.

            I’m not sure how this number relates to my actual reading speed, since those 5% hours also contained 5-10 minutes of smoking, as well as additional amounts of staring at the wall, drinking soda, going to the fridge and seeing what we had, returning disappointed from the fridge, shooing away the cat, etc. But I hardly see that it matters, since I am never likely to do an hour of reading that is free from 10-15 minutes of such distractions.

            In my reading since, I’ve observed that this rate seems to have held true, though, of course, it could just be a selectivity bias, in that I interpret what are, in reality, various speeds as conforming to the rate I’d already decided was the right one. Still, before I did these calculations, I literally had no idea what my reading speed could be (or even what is normal for educated readers of English). I suppose I would have assumed my reading speed was more in the range of 20-30,000 words per hour (which is a rate that is theoretically possible, since the fastest readers read at about 600 wpm, which would be [assuming they can keep it up], 36,000 words per hour)

            Although my heart revels in the ability to quantify the time I spend reading, I am not sure that it will prove healthy in the long run. At 15,000 wph, I must have spent 20 hours reading Vanity Fair. War and Peace clocks in at 600,000 words, that’s 40 hours: a full work week!

            George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books (which I’ve read who knows how many times) are circa 300-400,000 words each…reading through the series probably takes me around a hundred hours. There are only like 5,840 waking hours in a year! That’s a maximum of 876 normal-length (i.e. 100,000 word) books, assuming I read from when I wake up straight through until I go to sleep (more feasible than it sounds, given the 10-15 minutes of miscellaneous tasks throughout each hour). Probably this line of reasoning will eventually drive me insane. I hope insanity comes with mad speed-reading skills.