Saturday, July 28, 2007

Urban Outfitted or Suburban Explorer—Atmospheric Pressure

Okay, so there has been a discussion about size of CW MFA programs and Art School versus English Department program. What about the city or college town that an M.F.A. student ends up living in for two whole years?

Obviously, many students are attracted by NYC and its constant movement, cultural centers, and museums. Just sitting in a subway car has its moments with all kinds of people running from here to there. There is plenty of fodder in everyday life in big cities to give a CW student inspiration to write. The downsides are the potential distractions. Will I write enough and get work done?

The opposite setting is a college town like Charlottesville, Virginia or even Amherst, Massachusetts. A writer can close oneself off from the outside world and concentrate on one’s craft. In such a setting, a student might have nothing more appealing to do than write for days. How many farms are out there?

Are these just assumptions? What’s your opinion?


Lincoln said...

Before moving to NYC to get my MFA I was living in Charlottesville... and I have to say I don't really see how NYC necessarily provides more distractions.

In fact, I personally find it to be the opposite. I'm not totally sure why. It might be that living in a college town means that interesting things are realtively scarce so you end up going to them whenever they occur (good concerts, cool parties, etc.) but in a city like NYC a thousand awesome things are going on every day, and it becomes easier to ignore them (and/or become so overwhelmed you do nothing). It seems to me that it is easier to skip a concert by your favorite band when you know they will play your city four other times this year than to skip it when they won't be back to town for four years. I think in smaller towns you tend to end up with a smaller circle of friends, which can easily provide pressure to regularly attend social functions, but in a big city with a larger and more fractured set of friends it can sometimes be easier to avoid them when you need alone time.

Lastly, if you are lazy like me it is much easier to skip a social function when it requires a 30 minute subway ride than when it is occurring across the street from your apartment.

Amherst and Charlottesville (and most other small town programs) are still college towns, which means there are still plenty of concerts, parties, plays, art events, movies, and any other common distraction for young writers.

Of course, when I lived in Cville I was working and not attending an MFA program, which probably changes things. Still, unless you require time in the middle of the woods with no humans around, I don't really see how being in a large city or small city should make too much of a difference in this regard. As writers we are forced to dedicate our time to writing or fail. Even the smallest city has plenty of distractions if one wants to procrastinate (god knows more time is wasted watching TV or goofing off online than by attending art openings or broadway plays) and even the largest city's distractions can be easily avoided by a determined writer.

The main difference I see between a big and small program fro a writer is opportunities in related fields. If one wants to work in book publishing, magazine publishing, literary agencies or teaching there are innumerable opportunities to intern, work or practice those skills in a city like NYC that you simply won't get in most small towns.

Lincoln said...

Sorry, that was pretty long. Perhaps a more succinct way to put it is this:

Even in a small college town, distractions will occur daily (parties, art openings, concerts, readings and other social functions). If you succumb easily to these kinds of temptations it will be a problem wherever you go. As writers we have to do our best to avoid them at least enough to give us adequate writing time, no matter where we are.

M. Ramirez Talusan said...

lincoln and i have the opposite experience, since i moved to ithaca from nyc, where i had a really established group of friends and where i knew i wouldn't get work done if i stayed, especially because i would have probably had to work in addition to taking mfa classes. while i do have close friends here at cornell, i think i've also known as one of the people who comes to social things when i feel like it but often stays in to work. so i do get a lot more work done here. so i think it just depends on the person.

Mike Valente said...

Talusan and Lincoln bring up interesting points, and I can totally see both happening. Last year during applications, classes, GRE prep, and actual work-work, I was able to sit down and crank through it. Though, lately, my head has been in a whirlwind when my biggest concern has been Bonds-chasing-Aaron. I think that I'll be able to focus once I get settled in school, though, I'll be able to add more to this discussion once I actually move to South Bend from San Francisco. Hmm, I remember during my working days when my boss would say something like, "You need to get this", and the look in his eyes, bulging, indirectly saying, "or this company will be hurting and you'll be let go tomorrow". That definitely was enough motivation to succeed. During the MFA, that pressure needs to be self-induced somehow. So maybe one's work ethic is a combination of mental approach and surroundings.

Miles Newbold Clark said...

Congratulations to Lincoln Michel for his excellent contribution to The L Magazine's recent fiction issue.

The absolute best way to be productive is to move to a foreign county. One of two things will happen: either you will meet an attractive native person, begin learning the language, arranging entry visas, seeing the sights, and witnessing the gradual collapse of your writing abilities, or else you will lock yourself in a room, and, alienated from the society around you, live in the worlds you create. Then, when you come back to America, sans attractive native person, to find that your friends scattered in graduate programs in foreign time zones, you will either start prowling around the municipal high school in perverted search for the exoticism you have missed, or else begin editing the products of your isolation. At some point you will finish editing, and a horrendous void will open beneath your feet. At that point, you must begin to submit your work.

Bolivia Red said...

Lincoln makes a good point that even in a small town there are distractions like parties and such, but I think there's a benefit to a small town that I don't know exists in a city.

In a small town you're forced to put on parties and arrange bowling nites and the like with your peers because there aren't tons of concerts or artsy events. I think that my MFA group is a lot closer because we don't have as many other options as a city might offer to go our separate ways. We do have those people who show up only rarely, protecting their time, and it's respected.

Sara said...

Personally, I've finally pounded it through my thick skull that I can't depend on any kind of circumstance or location, but only on how I myself behave in them: I'm much too adept at finding loopholes and excuses when I try to base any decision off outside surroundings.

(Of course, I never act on this very mature little epiphany.)

I also think it can depend on your own writing style and inspiration. Some people become prolific when they're presented with bucolic cow-and-pasture scenes; others can only write in a grungy all-night diner. Luckily, there's something out there for any appetite.

Lincoln said...

M. Ramirez Talusan said...

lincoln and i have the opposite experience, since i moved to ithaca from nyc, where i had a really established group of friends and where i knew i wouldn't get work done if i stayed, especially because i would have probably had to work in addition to taking mfa classes.


It seems the common thread here is an established group of friends (I had it in Cville, but not NYC). Moving to a new city to do an MFA strikes me as a good idea.

Lincoln said...

Miles Newbold Clark

That's very kind of you to say. Thank you.

bolivia red, that is an interesting point, though I think it might depend on the city. If you are talking about a giant city like NYC, while there may be a million things going on, most of the time you don't want to travel an hour to go do something. I certainly spend far more time up around Columbia with friends in the MFA program organizing our own social events (parties, poker nights, etc.) than I do going to foam parties at clubs in the LES or whatever the kids do these days.

But I think the other question is what we mean by "small town." In a truly small town I think the characterization in the blog post is very true, but I don't think it is true for most of what gets called a small town in regards to MFA forums. The examples listed, Amherst and Charlottesville, are not small towns. They are decent sized cities. Wikipedia lists them as having 35 and 40 thousand residents (which doesn't include all of the massive student bodies for both cities). Charlottesville is, IIRC, the third largest city in Virginia and has a metro population of almost 200,000.

So we aren't talking about podunk towns with a handful of people. The MFA's in "small towns" discussed on these kinds of blogs are normally like Amherst or Charlottesville, smallish liberal cities with big universities. At places like that there are normally plenty of things going on. Hell, a large university like Umass-Amherst or UVA itself provides more than enough events and distractions, to say nothing of the cities around them.

I hope I don't seem to be advocating large cities over small. I'm not. Charlottesville is an amazing city and UVA is an amazing program. I'd certainly recommend it to anyone applying. However, it doesn't seem to me that distractions or lack of distractions should be much of a factor in one's decision. I think Sara said it best. The factor should be where you want to be and what will help your writing. Would am east coast big city provide the best environment for your work? A liberal college town? etc. Distractions exist everywhere (says the guy posting on an MFA blog when he should be writing in the library...).

polly said...

Distractions are one issue, but not the only one. Lincoln is right that the internet can make you blow off time like nothing else, no matter where you live; I personally have not even owned a television for 25 years because I'd never get anything done. Yet I've lived in New York over 20 years, after migrating from Providence, and I "use" the city shockingly little for all its attractions. Just add earplugs to the shopping cart every few weeks.

But it's more, I think -- you need to be someplace where you have a shot at being content. Not necessarily happy, although I don't subscribe to the idea that unhappy makes great writing. But you can't be either so depressed or so anxious that it puts you outside the functional range.

That said -- I hate New York, always have, and as soon as I publish that brilliant set of essays and translations that are my thesis project, I am bleepin' OUT of here. :)

Vince said...

This is really good to know. I guess I was wondering how writers fare in either setting. It's just one of those variables. To be fair, college towns tend to have a steady pulse that revolves around the big University. It looks like it just depends on the person and his/ her priorities.

L. said...

Yeah, I'd comment, but mmm... I need to get some work done.

Kudos, Lincoln, on your L Magazine thing.

M. Ramirez Talusan said...

lincoln's mention of foam parties makes me all teary and nostalgic...

Vince said...

Oh dear. Waterproof me now. I need a pancho.

Josette said...

My flippant response to this issue would be, "As long as there's Internet access and sushi and Starbucks, I'll be happy," but of course it's much more complicated than that.

I'm in agreement with Darryl Lynne in that smaller college town environments means creating your own fun. And there's also a certain appeal, especially for me, in shutting yourself off from the world with only a laptop or a pen and paper for company. I wonder how much I'd be able to get done if I was going to school in Seattle rather than Blacksburg.

jaywalke said...

I believe the distractions still exist, they are just different. I live in a college town in the mountains, and I would greatly prefer to go hiking/biking/kayaking every day.

If you aren't a renter there are the fun homeowner things that make great excuses not to write, such as mowing the lawn, painting the dog or re-carpeting the rumpus room.

It's all about dedication, no matter where you are.