I just received my first MFA packet back from Greg Pape, and it was a doozy. I sent far more original poems than I should have, and he was utterly gracious about it. Greg works by annotating the packet, sending a letter, and speaking into a cassette tape. Can I just say - - Best. Evar. If you've ever met Greg or heard him read, you know he's got a mesmerizing voice. Getting his advice both in writing (which I require for academic processing, because that's how my brain works) and via audio (which lends a wonderful personal note to the packet exchange) is wonderful.
Greg is also one of the most diplomatic workshoppers I have met so far. He manages to blend his critique (always to the point and very useful) with non-pandering praise so that you really do feel you have some worth as a writer and that there's something salvageable in whatever you sent that needs work. I sent Greg a goodly chunk of my Lilith collection, which none of the other faculty has seen yet. It's been niggling at me, and I've been stuck - something seems off, although I'm still enamored of the project, and this rut has really derailed my writing.
Greg hit the nail right on the head. I was paying so much attention to rhetorical structure, language and rhythm, I got lost and forgot about how essential crisp images are. (Um, yeah. IMAGE, Poetess. How do you forget a thing like that? Idiot.) There were other criticisms that were also on the money - like that staying too deep in mythic language without dipping into the contemporary is overwhelming, and some other things, but the overarching fixable thing is image. D'oh. Anyway, Greg pointed out some of the weaker areas that can be shored up or rewritten, and now that I have a handle on the areas of suckitude, I feel empowered and able to write again, and do some serious revision work.
I'm frustrated that it is something so obvious (though pleased that it's something fixable and not a flaw with the idea of the project itself) that has been holding me back on this. Then again, it's a nice reminder as to the importance of having an outside reader who is willing to wrestle with your work on its own terms and ferret out exactly what it keeping it from being excellent. I'm lucky enough to have not only friends who are willing to read and critique for me (and friends who write in different genres at that!) but that I've got access to great mentors through Spalding's MFA program. Every once in awhile I ponder at the selfishness of pursuing an expensive degree that doesn't net me much other than personal satisfaction and better writing...and then help like this comes along, or a kind comment from a fellow writer who understands the frustrations of being a writer, and I realize that my life is better for this.
I'll admit that my anti-hippie stance led me to laugh at all the self-actualization hooey you hear about from life coaches (and, um, Maslow). But I'll tell you what - absolutely nothing beats having a career you actually love, and pursuing the things that are important to you and make you feel whole and right. And if that's selfish, well, then let's count it a good thing that I don't have kidlets.
And back to the mentor topic - yes, get someone who reads your work. They don't even have to be a writer, or in your genre - just genuinely interested in helping. I'm always amazed at the great insights that the quote-unquote-untrained come up with. It's often more insightful than what you can get in a workshop because they're not constrained by 'rules' or what they think they should say. Go for it. Can't hurt!