Why-oming?

img_5744As I write this last post of 2016, I’m sitting alone in a hotel room in Glenrock, Wyoming after a long day of surveillance, my first completely solo case as a private detective, which is by all accounts a difficult case even for seasoned investigators, if my peers and bosses are to be trusted. I feel like I’ve recently begun to prove myself at this job, and I’m happy that my superiors were willing to invest so much faith in such a relatively unproven commodity, which I certainly am.

Someone I cared about once called my desire to enter this career another one of my “pipe dreams,” and I had a moment today where I had to laugh and admit to myself that, though I am not a very accomplished or stable man, I’m certain I can come up with better pipe dreams than sitting on the side of some desolate Wyoming highway trying not to get my ass shot off for filming strangers! I’d be lying if I said that even while I was laughing at myself about this, that comment didn’t still really sting deep down–I’d only ever considered the things I’ve attempted to do as sincere dreams, and it hurt to realize I might be considered a heel for daring to dream them, which I still dare to do today. I made a lot of mistakes, but pursuing my dreams at all costs will never be one of them.

It’s strangely fitting to be spending the end of this crazy year alone, in a desolate place, working toward something that feels really uncertain and hard to nail down at times. I spent most of this year absolutely heartbroken, and in a lot of ways I am just now really beginning to recover from it. It was one of my worst on record, and yet I had two books published, edited a well-received anthology, and produced two issues of Crime Syndicate Magazine. That alone should have made it a banner year for me as a fledgling professional writer, but in the meantime, so many other things were falling apart that it feels like tossing sand into the ocean to even try to consider myself successful this year.

But life goes on, that much is certain. The alternative ain’t too good, as they say. And I’m happy to be alive, excited to see what next year will bring, and in the process of rebuilding my life as a single, divorced man, something I never anticipated being. Maybe I deserve it, I don’t know. But this year I have felt the respect and acceptance of so many people, too.

Strangers have become family, close friends have become even closer, and integral parts of my family have become near strangers. Somewhere in that dichotomy, there is a truth that I’m too afraid to really embrace right now, though I plan to do so soon. I have recently remembered that life is what you make it, and also that there are no redos either way. That sobering fact has led me to feel all kinds of passion and drive once again.

As for you guys and gals, I hope that you are building the lives you want, or else learning to want the lives you’ve built. My greatest hope is that you stay loyal to your people, stay true to yourselves, and that you make 2017 the best year of you that there has ever been. I know I’m going to try to, no matter what comes my way. I wish everyone peace and accomplishment and understanding in the year ahead. And also love; lots and lots of love. I’m not sure if I wish love for me again yet, but I’m working hard on developing that feeling. Cheers to you all, and since I literally won’t see any of you until next year, happy new year in advance!

Bouchercon 2016 Recap: N’awlins!

IMG_4868.JPGBeen wanting to write this since I got home, but I’ve been too tired and run down for the last forty-eight hours. Which is a good thing, really. After spending five days with the greatest tribe on earth, that is, crime fiction writers, I’m feeling enthused, motivated, sick, and ready for the future. In case you’re wondering exactly what I mean when I say this, what follows is a recap of the AMAZING week I had down south, a week that I could neither afford nor afford to miss. Honestly, I’d sell my soul to Satan to make it to Bouchercon, if that’s what it took.

Wednesday, 9/14:

 

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Yours Truly reading from Debt Crusher!

Touched down in New Orleans after some pretty painless travel looking to get out of the airport and into the mix ASAP, and, of course, like we insecure writers often do, unsure if anyone would even remember me, or if I would be forced to walk around all awkward and lonely for five days in a city that virtually never even takes a weed nap. Which turned out to be a moot worry, since as soon as I walked off the plane I ran into S.W. Lauden and Eric Beetner, and we all did a little crime writer happy dance, giddy with anticipation for the Noir at the Bar Bouchercon we were slated to read together at not two hours later. Thanks Eric for arranging that, and for including me, much appreciated, man.

 

 

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Eric Beetner reading from Nine Toes in the Grave!

And what a fine, though boozeless, reading it was! All I can say about it is that I had multiple moments where I couldn’t even believe I was getting get to read next to such amazing writers. I read a short excerpt from my novella Debt Crusher, then sat back and watched as author after author absolutely crushed it. Seriously, it was intimidating and inspiring all at the same time.

 

Somewhere in there, I had a conversation with Craig Faustus Buck (I think at the bar before the readings), though I don’t really remember how that happened, in retrospect. Maybe I dreamed it.

 

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Um, CHINGON!

After a po’ boy at Mother’s Restaurant, I made the way over to Noir Bar After Dark at The Voodoo Lounge, where S.G. Redling (her reading was one of the best I have EVER heard, BTW), Johnny Shaw (Chingon!), Christa Faust, Sarah M. Chen (laughed my ass off), Josh Stallings, Danny Gardner,  and some other amazing writers I can no longer remember thanks to the absinthe shots that we took with Jason Stuart, tore it up on stage. Got the chance to meet Jeremy Stabile, publisher of Down and Out Books‘ new dark fiction imprint, ABC Group Documentation, and we had a fantastic conversation about their plans, which sound really great. The rest of that night became a blur of hurricanes, weird food, and drunken mania that devolved into a 3AM bedtime, and thus a late start to the next day, which was totally worth it.

 

Thursday, 9/15:

I’d like to tell you I hit all the panels and it was the greatest set of panels ever hit, but the truth is l hit like one panel on Thursday, thanks to the late start, an amazing breakfast at The Ruby Slipper Cafe, and, of course, the obligatory trip down to Bourbon Street, where we listened to tons of great music before making our way over to Frenchmen Street for a quick dinner and then on to the Down and Out Books Five Year Aniversary readings, where I saw the likes of Tom Pitts, Rob Hart, Angel Luis Colón , every Down and Out author I can think of, and of course Down and Out Publisher Eric Campbell. It was hot as hell in the room but totally worth the trip!

 

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Frenchmen Street Art Market

Afterward, we returned to Frenchmen Street and looked at some of the best pop art I’ve seen in a while, hit a bunch more live music, and, yes, devolved again into ritualistic cretins hellbent on drunken debauchery and mayhem. Which led to yet another 3AM bedtime, a rarity for me these days.

 

 

 

Friday, 9/16

I was hung over as fuck for Friday, a day that saw me take a nap, lay in bed, hit very few panels (again, I know, what a waste to have not hit more, but it was worth it), and ultimately try to gussy myself up for the Anthony Awards.

Which I ended up skipping in favor of dinner and drinks with Sarah M. Chen, my new brother in arms Jonathan Brown, and his wife Sonia Brown. Over dinner, Jonathan told some of the funniest bouncing stories I have ever heard, and honestly, I was ready to pony up the money for a short story collection he hasn’t even considered writing yet by the end of the night.  Had an amazing fillet, LOTS of wine, and spent the rest of the night making small talk in the hotel bar, hanging with the tribe, and making some great connections for the future. Managed to get to bed by about 2AM, so somewhat of an improvement over the previous days.

Saturday, 9/17

 

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Saturday saw me essentially out of juice but determined to hit lots of panels, which I enjoyed. Had a great time hearing some authors tell their real-life New Orleans stories, mobbed down some red beans and rice for lunch, and spent the afternoon in panels again. Saturday night found me at dinner again with the same crew as Friday, and we had an equally great meal and conversation. After a quick trip to Frenchmen Street with Jonathan and Sonia, I decided to Uber back to the hotel around midnight and get some sleep.

 

 

 

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Alpenglow over Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks on the drive home

The next morning it was time to say goodbye to New Orleans and head back to the high country of Colorado’s Western Slope with a head full of great memories and a little grumpiness to boot. Saw Joe Clifford on the plane, as well as Barbara Nickless (though I was too hung over to even say hello to her). It was an unfortunate flight trapped next to a man who decided to wear an entire bottle of the cheapest cologne on earth, but otherwise I was very happy to (eventually) make it home, though be it a little sick (I’m still blaming that guy’s cologne for the bacterial infection, no way it could have been the booze and filthy fun).

 

 

 

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Amazeballs book haul!

I just CANNOT WAIT for Toronto next year, that’s the best closing I can give to this post. There is nowhere on earth I feel more understood and accepted than when I’m with my fellow crime writers, and I hope to make dozens more Bouchercons in the years to come. Like I jokingly told a friend while trading my raffle tickets in for some free books, THIS IS MY WOODSTOCK! Thanks to everyone who hung out, put up with me, and said nice things about my writing, you have no idea how much it meant to me. If I didn’t mention you here, please know it doesn’t mean I wasn’t super pumped to spend time with you! See ya’ll next year, peace!

 

A New Dawn

IMG_4751This morning I’m up before dawn, just as I am most mornings lately, except I don’t much feel like working on anything “serious.” Instead, I’ve been sitting here for the better part of an hour drinking coffee and watching the sky shake off its charcoal shadows, gradually shifting from last night’s darkness into a smoky, rainy Friday, and thinking about the changes that have happened in my life these last few months.

Sometimes I wish I would sleep a little longer in the mornings, but the truth is that my mind often races so much that sleep feels like a distraction or a delay from more important things. Like I’m burning valuable minutes and hours I’ll never get back.

Four months ago I was waking up to very similar rainy mornings, but with very little in the way of feeling an actual purpose. I was lonely, lost, and losing my desire to keep pursuing my dreams on a number of levels. Now I feel guilty just sitting here when there’s so much to be done, and I’m thankful for that change.

But I have to remind myself that there’s a lot of benefit in being still sometimes, in sitting and doing nothing for a few minutes of the day. I’m not good at being still. Being present and grateful in the moment is something I’m  working to cultivate. When I have time. Which isn’t often, and honestly, that’s a good problem to have, given recent circumstances.

2016 has been one hell of a year. I’m still not sure if it will go down as one of the worst or one of the best in my life. Lately, I’ve been realizing more and more that this result is ultimately up to me, that it relies on which way I choose to view the things that have happened.  I lost a ten-year relationship and eight-year marriage this year. The wounds from that loss are fresh, though no longer festering.  I still feel them in most everything, though, nearly every day. I still tear up in random moments simply at the magnitude of the loss.

And yet, in that death, I’ve been blessed to find some perspective, most of all on myself and what kind of life I hope to live from here on out.

Make no mistake, divorce absolutely feels like a death. For me, marriage was an experience of such deep intimacy that it felt like it could never be shaken.  But when the time came it died so swiftly that those feelings might never have existed at all, and I came to learn a lot about the ways we all lie to ourselves, that the most important truths in our lives are often the ones we remain blind to until the very last moment. Looking back it’s hard to believe I could have been so out of touch with reality for so long, but that’s a whole other subject.

I can honestly say that without jiu-jitsu I don’t know if I would have survived the summer.  Not that training was a refuge, really, or even an easy thing to keep doing. In fact,  it was the first time in many years where training actually felt hard, like a chore I had to force myself into taking care of. Had I not felt a responsibility to teach my students, I’m not sure I would have kept going, honestly.

Running on little to no sleep and almost no food, there were days I barely managed to make it to the gym on my hands and knees, classes I had to just walk out of mid-sentence because I didn’t want my students to see my tears. There were mornings I questioned whether I even wanted to move beyond this thing, or whether it might be better to just give up. I know how that sounds, and I’m a little ashamed to admit it to anyone, but it needs to be said, just as any truth does, because it’s part of who I am now.

Letting go was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but when it was done I found  freedom in it, an opportunity to find and believe in myself in a way I was never able to do before. I found satisfaction and a sense of dignity that I tried my best to save a thing that was simply unsalvageable, that I didn’t just give up when it got unbearably hard to keep trying. Through this experience I’ve come to understand that we are entitled to do the work put in front of us in this life, but we are not entitled to the results we hope to achieve from that work, even if it’s a lesson I’m constantly having to relearn.

People change. Everything changes, in fact, all the time. Learning to let go with grace is a sign of wisdom, and while I’ve got a long way to go toward that kind of wisdom, I feel like I’m on that path now, at least. Learning to love myself in the face of things that made me question every aspect of who I am is the most humbling and also the most incredible experience I’ve ever had.

I am a flawed person. That’s okay. I’m also a loving, loyal person.  I’m wired for happiness, and it’s something I’ve been focusing on more and more every day, just finding the goodness in small things, and choosing to think the best about other people even when the nasty, traumatized part of me doesn’t think they deserve it, because choosing to think otherwise ends up affecting the way I see myself more than the way I see others.  I can’t accept that approach anymore. If valuable things had to die for me to change, I’m glad that mindset also died with them, at least.

Choosing to see the best in others has already gone a long way toward learning to trust again. Choosing to view myself as a tool to be used to improve others’ lives has brought me back to a sense of purpose. I love teaching, just as I love writing. While writing is the most solitary thing I’ve ever experienced, teaching is the most communal. You might say they are my yin and my yang, one encompassing absolute self-reliance, the other absolute reliance on others. As humans, we are destined to experience both.  Life is a paradox in that way. On the one hand, each life is a solitary journey that must be walked alone. On the other, try doing it by yourself and you’ll quickly see the infinite ways we are hopelessly dependent on each other.

I’m done with any lone wolf fantasies I may have harbored in the past. In this new dawn, even as rainy as it is, I’m ready to be a force for good both in my life and the lives of others. I have no idea where this approach will take me, but I hope it will continue to bring me satisfaction and perspective, and I hope it will help me to bring to others the sense of peace I’m starting to develop within myself. I’m not sure I have a right to ask for much more than that. Hell, when you break life down into small enough circles, I’m not sure there’s anything else left but that. Peace!

 

 

Answering the Bell

article-2645272-1E61FA9A00000578-254_634x423I know, it’s been a long time. Five months, more or less, since I last posted here. So sorry, life has been coming at me fast. Or maybe slow, depending on how you look at it. I’ve had a lot of people asking me what’s going on with me lately, so I felt compelled to write something, even if it won’t give any concrete answers or discuss anything specific.

The truth is, I just didn’t have much to say for a while there, found myself sinking in the muck that life sometimes piles on, unable to do anything but try to put one foot in front of the other in hopes of finding my way back out. Though I’m back among the living now, I’m far from being back on solid ground, and that’s okay. Even if it wasn’t, there would be nothing else to do but keep moving.

I don’t want to get into specifics, or point fingers,  not even at myself. I don’t want to make excuses or pretend like I understand or have some unique perspective to offer, because I do not. I think there’s just a certain amount of heartache guaranteed to each person in this life,  but all of it, whoever it might belong to, is painful, valid, and important for growth.

I don’t believe the Universe cares enough in either direction to do it on purpose. Not to me, not to you, not to anyone.  I don’t believe that luck or fortune are a matter of value or of retribution. I don’t believe in karma or comeuppance. Bad things happen to everyone. We either stand back up or we lay down and die, and there is nothing anyone can do to avoid that choice.

Frustration is a mighty, mighty foe.  It brings out the worst in all of us, no matter what we like to tell ourselves. Sadness is a solitary experience, even when surrounded by others. Anger is the great subtractor, scraping the value out of everything it touches.  No matter how many people love you or care  or want good things for you, you’ve still got to face the long, dark nights alone, and again there is nothing that can be done but to face it, even if all you can manage is to do so from your knees, or lying awake flat on your back in the middle of the night. Acceptance is the only path forward, even when it seems damn near impossible to walk.

I’m starting to walk it now. It’s lonely, it’s scary, and it’s not what I wanted or imagined for myself. It’s not necessarily even what I need.  It just is what it is.  Sometimes you have to watch everything unravel before you can spool the worthwhile parts back together. Sometimes you have to throw the whole roll out and start over again, no matter how hard you’ve worked to wrap it up tight. Sometimes you have to shift your view of the world into something new, or else continue to stand still and watch things fall apart.

I don’t know where I’ll be this time next week, let alone next month, or next year. I’m sure there will be good and bad things in my life then, just like now. When we want to make something work, we will. When we want to do better, we will. Until then, each of us will be forced to either answer the bell or stay planted on the stool in our corner.

I’ve been here before, so at least I have practice. And, honestly, thank God for the practice, however traumatic it was at the time. If there’s one thing a childhood with a crazy, aggressive, egomaniac alcoholic will do, it will innoculate you against hard times. It will also train you with a natural pre-disposition to create hard times, but I’m working on that.

I know there will be a day sometime soon when things start to make sense again. I know the right people will remain a part of my life, not because they have to, but because they want to. I know when all is said and done I’m a decent, kind human being, much more than the sum of my faults and traumas.

I’d like to say that someday I’ll look back on this and laugh, but I know that’s not true. But maybe I’ll be able to smile, satisfied that I did everything in my power, that I was willing to change when it was required of me, and that the person I have become could not exist without the person I used to be. I wish the same for each and every one of you. Peace.

 

 

Left Coast Crime 2016: Post Mortem

lcc2016Well, it’s Sunday night, and I’ve traded back in the sunny skies and seventy-degree weather of Phoenix and Left Coast Crime for a rainy, windy fifty degrees here in Seattle, where I live. Other than a difficult fiasco getting out of the Phoenix Airport that involved the TSA trying to touch my junk, it was a smooth, fantastic trip. Drinks were had. Stories were told. Friends were made. And once again I was reminded of how much fun it is to hang out with your fellow writers and talk shop.

I spent the first night bellied up to the bar with Rob Pierce and C.S. (Chris) Dewildt. Both are fellow All Due Respect Books authors, and it was good to finally meet them in person. That is until I looked up and realized we’d been sitting there having drinks for six hours. After I engaged in a little rooftop session I won’t go into detail about I called it a night a little after midnight, but had had  enough drinks that it ought to be much later.

Which is to say I was in rough shape for the Meet the New Authors Breakfast at 7:30 am the next morning. All I can tell you about my one-minute pitch for Debt Crusher up on stage is that it happened, people said it went fine afterward, and I went back to bed for an hour after not so much as touching the food.

I spent the rest of the day hitting panels, the highlight of which was the “Rock and Roll is Not a Crime” panel. Loved it. Shout out to S.W. Lauden for a great job moderating. Then it was time for a quick dinner at an Irish Pub down the street with a few friends, including fellow Seattle homeboy Brian Thornton and his wife Robyn as well as Stacey Robinson and David Schlosser.

Two Harps and one serious shepherd’s pie later, Brian and I rushed back in time to hit the “green room” and record what turned out to easily be my favorite episode of Noir on the Radio (click the link to listen to it) we’ve done. Though we’d hung briefly the night before, it was my first experience getting to know Josh Stallings, and man is he a great guy in addition to being a great writer. Just such a sweet dude with smart things to say and a great personality.

12800221_739822812821669_8792502599814015567_nBy then I was thick as thieves with the only other three authors reading that night who I hadn’t officially met in person, Rob Pierce, Chris Dewildt and S.W. Lauden. I’ve worked with Sarah M. Chen when she came up for Noir at the Bar Seattle, and Brian and I hang quite a bit as a result of both being on the Mystery Writers of American Northwest board (Brian is the president) as well as Noir at the Bar. I’m a big fan of every single person who reads on the show, but this group in particular’s readings were fantastic, and if you want to hear some amazingly talented and experienced authors dish on writing, the panel discussion after the readings is definitely worth a listen.

Afterward, I spent some time in the bar chatting with the likes of Joe Clifford, then having a great MMA discussion with Christa Faust, who is hella fun to chat with. By the time I hit the sack I was exhausted, so much so that I slept in until the 11 am panels, then went and grabbed some lunch with friends before hitting a full slate of panels in the afternoon.

I got a great dinner invitation that made me elect to skip the banquet in favor of checking out some gourmet Phoneix chow and cocktails. After the  whitest cab ride in history, we had a really nice dinner at Beckett’s Table that included some great conversations with the likes of David Corbett and Bill Fitzhugh, among others, which thrilled this newbie writer to the core. And alas, I was exhausted again. When we arrived at the hotel, I grabbed a Manhattan in the bar, fully intending to hit the poker game in the “green room,” then promptly went upstairs and straight to sleep.

I flew out first thing Sunday morning, which is where the airport madness ensued. However, my habit of always getting to the airport obnoxiously early saved my butt, and I even had time to sit down for some chorizo and eggs (good for this southern-boy-Seattlite transplant’s soul), then I ditched the sun and fun of Phoenix for the rain and wind of an atypically cold but typically rainy Seattle afternoon. And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t complaining by then. Phoenix was nice, but there’s simply no place like Seattle, and I missed my wife after three days away.

All-in-all it was a fantastic conference, my first Left Coast Crime. I already really miss my crew down there, and can’t wait for Bouchercon in Nawlins this fall. Cheers to everyone who came out and who made me feel so welcome, ya’ll are fucking kings and queens in my book. If you ever come up to Seattle you’ve got a guaranteed tour guide / friend. Cheers everyone!

No Turning Back: Even ENFPs Grow Up (Eventually)…

imagesWow, man–I’m thirty-five. I know, I know, to some of you that still sounds so young. I’m sure it’s starting to sound old to some others as well. I just can’t believe how fast it feels like life is slipping away sometimes. Five years from forty. Fifteen years from twenty. That is not the way I see myself at all, nor is this where I pictured myself at this age. Not that I had any other big plans or ideas. I’m far more blessed than I could have imagined. I’m just not as accomplished.

It’s strange watching the years tick away. I’m often haunted by the notion that I’m not living fast enough, not getting enough accomplished. Always waiting and working toward an uncertain future instead of enjoying the now.  I haven’t achieved much. Lots of false career starts. Some very mild success in writing. Brown belt in jiu-jitsu, but not necessarily champion material. An MFA that doesn’t seem to qualify me even for jobs I could probably do in my sleep.

But I have my wife, and I have my words, whatever they mean to anyone besides me. And I have my darkness, which was hard-earned but is something I’d still let go of if I could figure out how. Sometimes I’m fatalistic, and that’s something I expected to outgrow by this point. It feels like sometimes all I can see are the negative things in life, if only because I’m always looking to fix them. Which is stupid. Most of them require someone far smarter and far more talented than me to be fixed.

I guess I didn’t expect to spend so much time in neutral. There was a time I lived in fifth gear, cruising down the highway with very little regard for the destination, just determined to make the journey. Now the thought of that reviles me in some ways. Some days I don’t even want to leave my apartment. Yeah, I know how that sounds. It’s really not meant to be so depressing, though. It’s just not something I ever saw myself feeling.

In a sense, I guess you can say that I still have huge pieces of my youth left, and that’s a blessing. But nobody really explained to me that I’d have such a front row seat to watching it fade off a little at a time.  I don’t know if I expected it to just disappear one day, or what. I just know I don’t want to lose that young, youthful perspective on life, that thirst for new experiences that so defines me. But I am, just like everyone else. I see possibilities everywhere, but now I also recognize how many of them will never exist at all.

I want to spend all of my hours doing the things I love while they’re still so easy to do. Training jiu-jitsu. Having adventures. Writing the best books that I’m capable of writing. Travelling. But also staying home, learning to be disciplined and patient. I was never good at patient. Probably never will be. Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

And so on this, my thirty-fifth birthday, it feels like I’m standing on the edge of that next  great adventure, though I can’t even begin to tell you what it will look like.  I’m terrified it will fall apart like so many of the others that came before it. I’m also terrified that it won’t, and I’ll get tangled up into something different than what I’ve imagined, something less, with no way out. But I’m extremely fortunate to be in the position to act, to have agency over my plans, and that’s something I try to keep perspective on every day. I don’t know how my story will end, only that it will, for sure, end at some point.

In the meantime, I hope to find peace as much as prosperity in the coming years.  Probably more, if you want to know the truth. There, now that sounds more like the old me talking. Good to have him back; hopefully he’ll stick around for the future!

To MFA or Not to MFA: One Crime Writer’s Opinion

western-state-colorado-university-gunnison-colorado-janice-rae-parizaIn keeping up with my fellow writers via social media and their blogs, I’ve been noticing a lot of people weighing in recently on a discussion that has always held plenty of contention among authors. That discussion revolves, of course, around the dreaded, coveted, downplayed, and occasionally praised, Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing (MFA).

Full disclosure: I have an MFA. That said, this isn’t going to be a post about why that makes me better or worse than the next writer, and I’m not going to try to sell you on an MFA, or blame you if you think MFAs are snotty and unnecessary. I get it all around, really, I do.

But I have a unique perspective on the subject I’d like to share, given the unique nature of my specific MFA, which is in Popular Genre Writing and Commercial Fiction. I studied in a low-residency program in a town that I lived in any way at the time, Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado. I also went to undergrad at Western. I have my issues with the university as a whole that I won’t go into here, but I did really love my graduate school experience at the academic level.

That experience, as well as the experiences of others I’ve had conversations or read about on their blogs, has led me to believe that the answer to whether it makes sense to get an MFA or not is as simple as it is complex: it depends on the MFA, and it depends on the writer.

More disclosure: I was not a genre writer when I joined a genre-based program. Far from it. The reasons I joined were myriad, but among them was a sense that I needed to focus more on story craft, rather than just focusing on being emotionally engaging or writing tight prose (though I learned tons about tight prose too, shout out to Michaela Roessner Herman). I needed to understand market and business as well, if I was to move forward and build a career.

I was at a point where I felt ready for the first time to be serious about my writing. My wife was finishing up undergad at Western anyway, and an experience I had with Western’s graduate faculty at the Writing the Rockies writing conference the summer before I started made me believe they had the tools to coach me where I needed to go. So I applied and got in last minute, the first student ever in the program to start in the fall semester (after the first summer session had already ended) and still go on to graduate (I made up that first summer the next summer, which was heavy lifting, but worth it).

Joining the program was a great decision, as it turned out. I know the MFA detractors aren’t going to want to hear this, but IT CHANGED ME AS A WRITER FROM TOP TO BOTTOM. It made me better at everything I already did well, and it developed not only a strong skillset where I was lacking, but it also gave me an incredible professional understanding of market and genre, and how to write and sell for a multitude of both.

And that didn’t end when I graduated. In the six months since I finished,  I believe my writing improved more than it did in the entirety of the program, which I think  my instructors would admit was substantial. The skills are building other skills these days. I feel like a trained professional working in my chosen field whenever I write now, and it’s a great feeling…

A feeling that you don’t have to go to graduate school to get. That’s probably not what you expected to hear from me after that last paragraph. Sorry to confuse. The truth is, that path has worked well for me, but it’s probably not for everyone. The program I chose was more affordable than most, and it was the right fit for me as a writer. It also came along at a time when I was ready to be serious, which is perhaps the most important factor involved.

What I’ll say is this: writers who don’t want or have the resources to get an MFA can make most of the same progress by both studying technique and practicing what they study. But more importantly, having a sense of guided study. This could mean going to conferences and forging relationships with writers who are older and more experienced, or it could mean getting involved in writing groups and organizations.

But the important thing is that you seek out feedback and direction on how you can go about shaping up your technique and work. Also, you have to WRITE. A LOT.  And read. A LOT. If you’re a writer you need to study other people’s writing, both from a craft and market perspective.

And also from a reader’s perspective. I read a book or two a week, and while I have a situation more conducive to that than most, if you have time to watch television, you have time to read, and not only is it more entertaining (again, my opinion), but you’re also studying craft every time you sit down and do it, and exercising your creative mind by imagining the author’s world in the process.

Anyway, back to the MFA. I’ve heard people assert that MFAs are all about connections, and you’re just paying for connections when you join a program. While I find such statements a bit ad hominem in the first place, they’re often misguided for reasons that the speaker may not have considered. I can’t speak for all MFAs, but I can tell you that from my experience there was, indeed, an added benefit of connections, though probably not the type you’re thinking.

The valuable connections I made in graduate school were to my professors, and even more so to my classmates. My cohort was this incredible ball of talented,  compassionate human beings, each of whom came from a totally different background and wrote for a different genre than the others, for the most part.

I learned more than you could imagine from them, and they are absolutely some of my best friends on earth today. Every time one of them has a success I feel like I’ve had a success, because I feel invested in their writing and careers, and vice versa. They understand how difficult this process is, how far each of us has come, and how important acceptance and community can be to a struggling writer. After the first two-week on-campus intensive together, they felt like family. I feel protective over them, and invested in their lives as well as their careers.

So was my MFA worth it for the connections? How much money would you beg, borrow, and steal for connections like that? Each writer (hell, each person) has to decide that for themselves, and there’s no guarantee that your needs and timing and cohort will fall into line like mine did. I’ve heard nightmare MFA stories of alienation and contempt as well, so my experience isn’t everyone’s. Being in a genre-based, story craft-focused program seemed to shield me from such experiences, for the most part.

I’m just now starting to pay my loans back, too, so my value assessment will no doubt shift over time as a result of that.  But for me it was 100% worth it.

Of course, no one wants to hire me to teach using my degree either, but that would be a far bigger bummer if it weren’t for the travesty of adjunct labor at the university level right now anyway. Truth is that doesn’t feel like a sustainable career path to me at current pay rates. I’ve become a pretty good editor, however, and I’ve used the skills I’ve learned to strike out on my own in substantial ways.

At the end of the day, this is all just one writer’s unique experience, but my advice to those considering an MFA would be to do their homework, assess their feelings, needs, and strengths, and investigate each program’s unique potential for human connection and professional training.

It can be worth it in spades, if you find the right program. But it can also be a nightmare if you’re not ready for it or pick the wrong program. I’ll leave those of you who decide to pursue an MFA with this last bit of advice: if a prospective program does not train you to manage a career as a professional writer after graduation, my opinion is they’re shafting you of half the educational value, and not worth the money. Peace!