Category Archives: MFA

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Straight Lines Are Boring

by Clifford Garstang

Some days I envy the young writers who, right out of college, sit down to write their first novel and never stop writing. How much they could accomplish over a career of forty or fifty years! If only I had been able to do that!
But most days, when I’m being rational, I accept that I’ve taken the journey I had to take. I’m the person I am today—the writer I am—because of the non-writing work I’ve done and because of the places I’ve seen. If my lifetime writing output is smaller as a result, sobeit.
Like many writers, I was first a voracious reader. The Hardy Boys. Chip Hilton. Those are the books I collected and that stand out in my memory, although there must have been others. In high school I discovered books that made me think. I was one of those kids whose mind was blown by Hermann Hesse: Demian, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf. Even required reading in school got me excited: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Heart of Darkness. Another title comes back to me now that was influential at the time: Stranger in a Strange Land.
I was taken by the universal questions these works asked, and I came to admire the writers who had created them. I wanted to be one of them.
In college I majored in Philosophy, not because I knew anything about the subject but because of those questions my favorite writers were asking. If I were going to write like them, I needed to know how to think and also how to ask questions.
It should be noted that I wasn’t doing much writing of my own during this period. I did take a couple of creative writing classes in college, but I didn’t take it seriously. As graduation approached, I realized that majoring in Philosophy had limited my reading in literature, reading that a writer ought to have done, so I applied for graduate school in English. (I hadn’t heard about MFA programs back then; if I had, I might have tried to get into one.) I wasn’t writing, but at least I was preparing to write. It was just what I wanted and I was able to read widely, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Paley, and Cheever.
I was happy with the choice I’d made, but I was in need of a break from school, so I made a decision that turned out to be momentous: I joined the Peace Corps. I served for two years in South Korea, and while the job was difficult and living conditions harsh, the immersion in an unfamiliar environment—culture, food, language—opened my eyes and took me in an unexpected direction. I still wanted to write, but I also wanted an international career.
I returned to grad school, finished that MA in English, and then, because academia didn’t appeal to me as a long-term proposition, I went to law school, aiming to pursue international law, to live and work abroad. And that’s what happened. After graduation I was offered a job with a large, prestigious law firm, and within two years was sent to one of their offices in Asia. Exactly what I wanted, except that writing remained on the backburner.
Time passed. My work was not always exciting, but I traveled all over Asia and saw more of life than I would have if I’d remained in Chicago, which was its own reward. Eventually, though, I grew disenchanted. I had the idea that I wanted to be involved in international development and poverty alleviation, a holdover from my Peace Corps years. My law firm wasn’t going to get into that work, because it didn’t pay enough, so I explored other options. I quit the firm and went to graduate school again, this time to study international development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, with a goal of working for one of the multilateral development banks. First, though, I took a job as a legal reform consultant in Kazakhstan. No, really!
I lived in Kazakhstan for the better part of a year and found myself with time on my hands, so at long last I began to write. The story I wanted to tell was set against the political landscape of Southeast Asia, a romantic thriller mixed with Eastern Philosophy. I kept working on that project when I came back to the US and eventually finished a massive draft. I even took a class at the Writer’s Center in Washington DC, realizing that I might have a few things to learn about writing.
With no income, though, I began to worry about money. I had not learned the trick of cobbling together teaching and fee-lance work in order to get by, nor was I yet qualified to do any of that. So I began to look for a job, ideally one that would allow me to spend at least some time writing. Finally, I got the job I wanted: Senior Counsel for East Asia at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (aka The World Bank). It was a demanding job with a lot of Asian travel (I flew over a million miles in five years), and I was unable to do much more than tinker with my novel manuscript, but I loved it. I felt I was making a real contribution to global poverty alleviation, and adding to my store of experiences at the same time.
But then: the new millennium loomed. It seemed like a propitious time to take the leap and finally pursue my writing dream.
I’ve been writing more or less fulltime ever since. I picked up an MFA in Fiction along the way. I’ve attended countless writers’ conferences and workshops. I’ve written and re-written dozens of stories, most of which found homes in literary magazines and two small-press collections. I’ve done some teaching, some editing, a little free-lancing. But mostly I write. In addition to that first novel I wrote long ago and may someday resurrect, I’ve written two as-yet-unpublished novels and am close to finishing another, with ideas for several more. I’ve got lots to say.

 It’s been a circuitous route to Planet Write, but I don’t regret a single step.


Clifford Garstang is the author of the novel in stories What theZhang Boys Know, winner of the 2013 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction and the story collection In an Uncharted Country. He is also the editor of the anthology series Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. He is also the author of the literary blog Perpetual Folly. Visit him at

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: When a Question Becomes an Answer

by Meg Tuite

Is writing another form of depression that needs a page instead of an ear to hear it?

How often do you write the same story over and over again? Are you trying to get somewhere? But isn’t it supposed to be about the journey? What do we want to convey? Should it be in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, or maybe a mix? Past tense, present tense or both? Should it be written with differing voices that aren’t in linear time or should it be written at all? When does it seem like it doesn’t matter? That what is written won’t change anyone, not even the one who writes it? Is it true that anything and everything is interesting in the hands of a skilled writer? And where does the skill come from?

No one can really teach you how to write well. But, isn’t anything done well, reworked over and over again until it moves somewhere. More skill involves more time in front of the page, writing and writing and then there’s the editing part which is more intensive sometimes than the writing itself. So, then would that mean that a person with an eye for that extraneous crap in a story is really the writer?

And is there a way to lead a healthy life as a writer? Do you start off with coffee and hole up for a few hours? Or eat some eggs or oatmeal, take some vitamins, and then hole up again. Or sit in a cafe surrounded by the white noise of stranger’s voices so you don’t have to actually be alone to complete the task?

And what about exercise? Do you become a head with a body slugging behind it? How much energy is left over to run or go to a gym? And do you really care to move around after your mind has been on a treadmill trying to circumvent so many questions and possible paths? Or do you just say, fuck it, I’ll do that tomorrow and get some wine, Scotch, beer? Or maybe you’ve already been there, and so you take another Xanax and go to an AA meeting.

Do you have a social life? After spending many hours alone, does your tongue still work and do you have anything to say besides what your story or book is about? Or do you sit back and listen complacently because you have already completed your task in the world and let others tell you why their life is not coming together?

And is it a good thing to be in a healthy relationship? You know, happy and trusting and oh, yes, we both love our solitude and that makes being together all the more peaceful and uncomplicated. Or is best to have a lot of drama, so you can rage on the page and throw lamps and knick-knacks, end up sleeping with the neighbor’s cousin or stealing lawn ornaments or street signs to keep life interesting?

Do you work all day in an office, while you keep a notebook of thoughts for your manuscript

awaiting you at home? Do you turn the key in your lock and strip off your uniform and get your holey pajamas with that t-shirt you got from making the 50k words in a month NANO one year, grab some more coffee and sit at your desk?

Is there a better stream that flows at night when you hear traffic and sirens, music somewhere out there, but you just keep plugging those veins with caffeine as you remember that one time in high school, or that guy who always started his stories with ‘I got to tell you,’ or walk that fine line between waking and dreaming and let the free-float of words pressure themselves into some kind of formula that makes sense when you’re stoned or is so close to not making sense that you are sure it’s multi-layered and is one of those abstract pieces that can be interpreted so many different ways depending on the reader?

Do you surround yourself with books and a thesaurus? Do you keep checking for that one word that will absolutely blow minds with its inimitable impact? How about a word count? Do you shoot for 1500 words a day? 2500?  Or are you set up in a stark room, maybe the basement with the shades down and no books, no view, no sound but the cracking of joints when you stretch?   

And how do you know your work is authentic? Do you get out your copy of Poets and Writers and look for a summer workshop? Or maybe make certain that everyone knows you are serious about your vocation and get into an MFA program? Those are places where they attempt to guide you in a distinct direction. You are surrounded by classes full of writers just as confused as you are or maybe they aren’t? They are always tapping away on their keyboards whenever you see them on campus. Maybe that’s their voice and not your voice? Maybe they are misguiding you, and you become more and more certifiably lost as you sit with a group of other writers who continue to give you advice, though each one likes or dislikes or is confused by a different part of your story.

Or you decide to go to AWP. Yes, you are going to go to the largest writers conference for five days. You go to a panel on how to publish a book without an agent. You go to a panel on how to speak your truth, how to write a blog, what genre is best for you. In between panels you get a map of the book fair with millions of books for sale, walk aisle after aisle, booth after booth of small-press publishers, large-press publishers, literary magazine editors, MFA programs, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenplays, graphic novels, playwriting, agents, and in-house readings with a floor plan that makes any museum look like a bathroom stall. You stagger off after drinking your way through a pariah of off-site parties and readings each night with a bag full of books, brochures, pamphlets, buttons, stickers and business cards and rush to make your flight back home.

Do you remember whom you met? You look on your phone and see tons of photos of you with other writers or publishers or were they editors? Do any of the notes you made make sense? Why do you feel so depressed? Did you lie in bed for a week after it was over wondering why you have no energy to even open your computer? You might remember snippets of introductions of authors who have bios that go on like breakdowns. You remember staring out over a balcony at what looked to be enough people to fill a city and think that every one of them has written at least one book, if not more, trying not to calculate. Your back aches and your credit card is maxed out.

And while you’re lying in that bed, do you remember that first desk you sat beneath? Not the one at school, but the one your mom bought you for five bucks at the school rummage sale that waited for you every day against a corner of your room. And do you remember that you wanted to be dead when you were three? And when you got that writing desk with paper and sat at it when you were eight, it was the first time that you found a way to disappear and appear without anyone seeing at the same time.

You sit in a therapist’s office with headphones on and a beep that goes back and forth. “What do you see,” asks the therapist? Your eyes are closed. Aren’t those images of snapshots you saw when you were a kid? Yeah, you see your Dad. And yeah, you are shaking. “No,” you hear yourself think. “Nothing is clear,” you say. “It’s a blur of images.”  You can’t be sure of any of them, even if you spend an entire lifetime trying to hide the tremors that unhinge you.

You do know one thing, for sure. Writing is the only reason you’re still alive, whether anyone reads it or not.

by Meg Tuite
The girl didn’t want all the necklaces from the store rack that she slipped into her coat pocket the size of a rural mailbox opening, but did want friends to notice that she wasn’t as afraid as the tremors that spread across her face like the make-up and lipstick she just palmed in her hand that would only make her imperfections brighter, more shrill when one of her friends got too close to her and whispered  secrets about other girls that could have been her pimples, flat chest, crazy thoughts, secrets that her mom told her would save her from the captivity of convention, anchor her within her own breed of otherness, keep her from walking within the lines as her mother slipped a pen and notebook into the girl’s pocket and went back to confiscating the wail of wind in stranger’s depressed faces, demolished buildings, the bruised colors of the girl’s interior with a paintbrush, humming a soft, velvet tune that the girl wanted to crawl inside larger than her bulging pocket filled with sparkly trinkets she would hand out to friends at school the next day.  

(Published in MadHatter’s Review)


Meg Tuite is author of two short story collections, Bound By Blue(Sententia Books, 2013) and Domestic Apparition () San Francisco Bay Press, 2011), and four chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award from Artistically Declined Press for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging (2014) written with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, and is a columnist at Connotation Press and JMWW. Her blog:
Hollow Gestures” nominated for Best of the Web at Blue Lyra Review
Fingerprints,” ekphrastic flash w/ art, music on video published by Michael Cooper, Orange Monkey Publishing.
“Worn-Out Fabric” published in People Holding
Video book trailer for “Grace Notes” with David Tomaloff and me; video by Marc Neys
Root People” published in Nervous Breakdown

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Treading Water Even in the Dryer Seasons

by Jane Rosenberg LaForge 
No matter where I am, people ask me for directions. I could be in New York, where I have lived for 18 years, or on the streets of Paris, where I have spent six days, and someone will approach me for help.  I rarely know, for I am a tourist even in my own city.  But I must look as though I have a terrific sense of direction. Or perhaps I always appear to belong, or I’m someone who knows where she’s going and how to get there.
Cub reporters were once told they needed five years of experience to get a decent job.  I got mine at the Ocean City, Maryland, bureau of the Baltimore Sun. I was the only employee of said bureau, i.e. a desk I fashioned out of motel-style end tables in my rented living room. Ocean City was laid out like an aircraft carrier: one long strip of cement. The streets were numbered and reached into the hundreds, so no one asked me for directions. You could drive in circles and find your destination. Among my many scoops was the story of a kid who drove very fast and backward in a parking lot one night. He was “doing donuts,” and drove himself into the ocean.
There was a drought that summer; the mainstream media was trafficking in the term “global warming” for the first time. Temperatures at the beach hit the 90s. I had brought my relatively new husband with me, which meant he was unemployed while I was on duty. We argued a lot about how I neglected him to I chase after fires, drunken boating accidents, and an NAACP boycott of the town.  Hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks would not hire townies, a.k.a. African-American kids who lived on the mainland. Across the drawbridge, their roads were not always paved, and their access to public sewage systems not guaranteed. It was territory the Industrial Revolution and the Civil Rights movement apparently forgot, which made great copy for me, but a lot of misery for everyone else.   
I was crossing a field of corn on a dirt road on an inky night when my car was either attacked or ran into some indeterminate yet vengeful force. It slammed against the windshield and the passenger-side door so fiercely I had to stop driving.  When I dared to look through the windshield, I saw it was the only thing preventing me from drowning. Perhaps it was a flash flood, or that global warming business had reached critical mass, and the ocean was cresting into farmland. Or this was some kind of a test, a trial by water with a blindfold that also covered my common sense.
I realized through my disorientation and panic that the field, unlike most, was irrigated. I had hit a bank of water because the system had switched on.  My job was a kind of trial too, to see if I worthy enough to transfer permanently to the Metropolitan desk. And right then, I knew the trial was over, and I’d lost. I knew because I would have rather been lost, under water and mud logged, than on my feet and on my way back to whatever I was working on. I wanted to savor this experience and mine it for its potential symbolism. It held more possibility and portent than all that transpired that summer, because I could make it mythic.
Indeed, I was demoted that December, and went onto other nowhere-newspaper jobs. I got divorced and enrolled in an MFA program. In my first year, I built a story around my watery encounter into the tale of a boy who thinks he got his skanky babysitter pregnant (waters of birth, a new beginning, etc.). Though it was not the most coherent story ever written, I had wrestled it out of my own ephemera. I won a fellowship for older women writers, and resolved to learn all of the shortcuts in the rural, suburban, and forested sprawl that surrounded the campus.  
Soon enough, I was assigned an instructor convinced I was an insult to the intelligence of all sentient beings. I’m sure others have had this experience, but she amplified the humiliation she doled out during workshop by confiding to others how ardently she disapproved of me. Because one of my thesis committee members had heart surgery scheduled for the day of my defense, I had to include her on my committee. I managed to graduate (re-marry, move, and have a child) but found myself unable to write for many years afterward. When I had any doubts, I had her voice reminding me how I should indulge them.
I have since published a memoir; four volumes of poetry; and am in the midst of working on two others scheduled for publication. But I can barely navigate the grid system of Manhattan, though isn’t that what subways and a New York native for a daughter are for? I recently was relieved of a freelancing gig. The editor disagreed with my interpretation of the myth of Prometheus, whose theft of fire from Zeus – the equivalent of writing – earned him a lifetime of suffering. I can’t find an agent for my new novel, though one agent said in rejecting it: “Your writing is beautiful, and many of your sentences are so gorgeously crafted. You have a lot of writing talent,” and if I kept working on my craft, some day “you’re really going to knock our socks off.” I wonder if she knows I qualify for Social Security.

It’s been my failures that have defined my journey as a writer. The only thing certain is there will be more of them. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know about Samuel Beckett and “failing better.” At this point, it could be mathematically proven that this maxim doesn’t apply to my case. I don’t particularly like Beckett, but I think he’s onto something about how bleak our alternatives become if we do nothing in the face of inevitability. If I don’t know why I subject myself to ever more monstrous failures, I need only look at the settings of his plays to see what awaits me should I quit. I am a lost soul who cannot help but look for meaning in my life.  I’m headed where everyone is going, but I hope to take my time, and take notice, before I get there.
For her website: Jane Rosenberg LaForge
For the new chapbook, In Remembrance of the Life
Facebook author page: Jane Rosenberg LaForge
Twitter: @JaneRLaForge
Jane Rosenberg LaForge is the author of An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir (Jaded Ibis Press 2014) and four volumes of poetry: After Voices (Burning River 2009); Half-Life (Big Table Publishing 2011); With Apologies to Mick Jagger, Other Gods, and All Women (The Aldrich Press 2012) and The Navigation of Loss (Red Ochre Lit 2012). Her newest poetry collection is the chapbook In Remembrance of the Life (Spruce Alley Press 2016) and her full-length collection, Daphne and Her Discontents, is forthcoming from Ravenna Press.