Tag Archives: MFA

Claim Your Writing Place by Deanna Rasch

Photo from Deanna Rasch

Facebook reminded me this week of a trip four years ago. I had the rare and wonderful privilege of spending almost two weeks immersed in writing, steeped in the power that place can exert on creativity and identity.

I applied, in the final year of my MFA in Creative Writing program, to a writing residency in Ireland – a place I’d always dreamed of visiting. Except for the briefest of trips across the border into Mexico and Canada, I was a Gen X-er who’d never traveled outside the United States. I had a list in my pocket of places I’d visit and a current passport, should the opportunity (and funds) ever arise.

Likewise, the MFA was a goal I’d held close for, well, decades, if I’m honest. The program ended up opening the door, as well, to this dream of international travel. My gratitude for this has only grown in the past year, through all the isolation and restrictions.

It took almost two days to make that trip from Colorado to our final destination – an inn on the island off the coast of Ireland called Inis Oirr. It was a “planes, trains, and automobiles” kind of trip. Two planes, a bus, a small ferry boat, a horse drawn buggy (for our luggage), and a hike up a steep cobbled road from the docks, to be exact. The trip was like winding back the decades, one mode of transport at a time.

I’m remembering, as I write this, the crowded Galway park, full of locals enjoying the warmth of a relatively rare sunny day. Our cohort assembled to await the ferry, lying about on the greenest of grass (which is not a myth, by the way ; ) I fell asleep for a bit, exhausted from the travelling, feeling somehow safe in the midst of all that activity. Then came the crisp, refreshing wind in our faces as the ferry boat bumped its way over the rough open sea to the island. The thrill of seeing the island rise up out of the water ahead, crowned by a diadem with castle jewels. The fishy smell of the docks as we hopped off the swaying boat. The clop of horses’ hooves on the cobbles. The lilt of a warm greeting from the innkeeper in Gaelic. The savory smell of fresh seafood chowder for dinner, served with stories from fishermen playing pool nearby about the catch of the day.

Feel that sense of place? : )

I could add a few bumps along the way, to be sure. But I find myself recalling mostly sensations, memories that make me smile. Experience again those spacious moments. Walks by the sea. Sunsets so late at night. Lovely language and kind community. The writing the immersion opened in me.

Perhaps it’s in sharp contrast with feeling so confined much of the past year, between lockdowns and perpetual smoke and ash last summer from the fires here in Colorado. The feeling of loss all around – its own sense of place.

Ireland was an embodied experience of what I’d vicariously tasted as a teen, exploring the strange new worlds of science fiction and fantasy. Places that (as a young queer person who wouldn’t find acceptance for years to come) inspired feelings of hope and belonging in a wider world. Settings and societies that expanded my definitions and horizons beyond the messy, violent urban neighborhood I grew up in. Written by authors who knew how to create new potentialities by conveying a strong sense of place.

John Varley, for example, in his classic Gaia Trilogy, transported me to Titan, the being/world whose 12 distinct lands he personified on the page. Each place – and Gaia as a whole – acted as a foil for the astronauts stranded there (and those soon to follow) requiring characters to confront their limitations and biases. Allowing them to discover fuller identities (including sexual identities). To reach unexpected potentials beyond the limited selves they were on arrival. All through sustained interaction with a place far beyond their current experience.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series pulled me into world where the dragons, themselves, were inextricably tied to the biology of a world inhabited by a people who were (in the original trilogy) beginning to question their ancestry. Their sense of place. Where individuals were questioning their identities as this evolution began. Where young people could empower themselves, be supported in putting hard situations behind them, and pursue their gifts. Could use them in service of surviving, thriving, and creating in this place. Responding to questions whose answers challenged every assumption they’d held about their connections with each other, the dragons, and Pern.

I’ve found myself rereading these and other authors with this talent in the past year. Reaching, almost obsessively, for that expanded sense of place, as my outer world shrank to the size of my apartment. For that spaciousness I’ve always found on the page. What I’m now enjoying, again, through the pictures of my time in Ireland. Revisiting that lived experience of revising, in a deeper way, my sense of place in the world. Seeing it reflected in my writing.

We can be of service, I believe, as writers, by reaching beyond the experience of place we know. Not by appropriating others’ stories, their unique sense of “place.” Rather, by reading those stories – real and fantastic. Stretching our own lived experiences, where we can. Cleaning out head junk that likes to whisper, “What you’ve known is the only place.”

Think of the impact we can have, dear writers, if we work at conveying, as best we can, insights we glean by taking deep dives into place. Imagining less limiting futures. Creating stories and worlds our readers want to visit – even revisit – that expand their own definitions, as others’ stories have for us. The hope and resilience we can help bring to a “place” that really needs it right now. ❤

D.M. Rasch is an author of LGBTQ+ speculative fiction (and an occasional poet) who lives in the Denver, CO area with 2 sister kittens who are pretty tough in the editing department. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and balances being a working writer with her work as a Creative Coach, Mentor, and Editor (as Deanna M. Rasch) in her business, Itinerant Creative Content & Coaching LLC . Find her publications on the linked Amazon page and look forward to upcoming publications: a YA science fiction novel Freedom’s Cost, as well as the first in a series related to her story At the Movies, recently featured in Other Worlds Ink’s anthology, Fix the World: twelve sci-fi writers save the future.

Workshop Woes by Lisa Ciarfella


Eighteen months ago when I first started this roller coaster of an MFA ride, me and my small group of scrivener cohorts all had essentially, the same innocent, naïve dreams dancing through our madly scribbled prose. We were all going to land the same fortune cookie tale. You know the one. When cracked open, it tells tales of highly praised, sought after scribes writing prolific prose in the genre of choice, with agents camped out on lawns and multi-gazillion dollar world-wide book sales jamming up our inboxes. And of course, ditching the day job as soon as possible in exchange for hunkering down in some great old Italian Villa to write full time to our ever growing, overwhelming international demand. Yeah, as far as tall tales go, it’s a nice one.

But then the sun crashes in hard through that dream, abruptly waking you to the realization that last night’s four-hour grueling workshop all but incinerated your words on the page, and that cotton candy dream spun high on the stick has melted just a little bit more leaving you with nothing but a stick for a pencil, and one that needs sharpening to boot. Well, not exactly. But after repeated similar late night takes in a seemingly never ending semester where you’ve watched your work get slammed over and over, heard others get slammed, and seen only the occasional blue moon praise for those lofty enough to be deemed worthy, that’s kind of what it can feel like. And it can leave you wondering if there isn’t a better way, a less soul-crushing way, to refine the chosen craft. Strangely enough, the answers seem to lie in querying the traditional five W’s of solid journalism, and you’d be surprised what you might find if you do.

WHO: First off, success of the workshop really depends on who’s at the helm leading the charge. In her “Open Letter to Crabby Writing Teachers Everywhere” author/blogger Karen Gillespie pretty much laid down the gauntlet to this dilemma in her response to another very public blog post written by ex MFA professor Ryan Boudinot, who gave the impression he was more than a little happy not to be teaching anymore:

“Your students and their clumsy, inelegant prose irritate you. (Never mind that you were just like them a couple of decades ago.) Their naiveté is grating…your dismissive attitude…shows in your teaching. You can get nasty during workshop. Your comments on students’ manuscripts are terse, bordering on cruel, especially if you’re not having a good day. Your lectures are phoned in…What does it matter? It’s not like writing can be taught. Or can it?” (Gillespie).

Bravo Karen. From my experience as one of those clumsy, inelegant and naïve students, I’d say this is about right. Of course, this see-saw can easily swing the other way if you get lucky enough to draw this instructor’s opposite: encouraging, informative, and helpful. In my workshops, I’ve experienced both types. And the benefits derived seemed to mimic the teacher directly. Case in point: my progress all but screeched to a dead end halt during an interminable semester with the former, but grew by leaps and bounds with the latter. My advice? If given the option, pick and choose your professors carefully. You won’t regret it.

WHAT:  What you’re workshopping plays a big impact in the kind of help you might get. I learned this the hard way. If you’re professor and peers have made it clear they’re not fans of romance and you bring in the latest installment of “Moon over Miami” with crooners cooing over house cats and housewives getting it on with pool boys, you might as well just stay home. Your feedback will be death by slow torture. What you thought was clever, interesting, and exciting will most likely wind up streaked through with red and comments such as “Is this really realistic?” and “why don’t you try a little poetry instead.” The big lesson here? Know your audience, and cater to them, at least a little. If, that is, passing grades place anywhere on your immediate radar.

WHERE: Timing and place in workshops is more important than you might think. Generally speaking, late night, thrice weekly workshops that meet once a week for four hours or more mean someone is going to get short-changed when reading. Grad students are busy. We have classes, work, and families to tend to which means no one has much energy to spare. So whoever draws the unlucky straw to read last in the line up will inevitably be reading to a grouchy, tired and half asleep audience at best. But we all deserve to be properly read, critiqued and considered thoughtfully. That is, after all, the whole workshop point, so consider time carefully when registering for classes. Place plays a key role too. It was rumored that a professor at my school once held workshops on her boat. Another, to have opened up their home. Both ideas seem stellar for breaking down the intimidation factor by providing a more homey, intimate workshop feel. Not a half bad idea, considering the reading experience, especially for novices. can be akin to opening up a vein and bleeding all over the page.

Why: Something to consider is why you want to workshop a certain piece in the first place. Is it for plot feedback? Content relevance? Grammar and punctuation help? Again, knowing your audience is key. If you have several self-proclaimed grammar Nazi’s in your class, and your professor is the same way, then you know going in what kind of critique you’re going to get. I learned over time to workshop only what I needed in terms of helping my story move forward. Anything else could wait. And asking specific questions of your readers to direct their attention where you want it and away from what you don’t, can be very helpful. Bottom line; keep what works, and toss what doesn’t. You are, after all, in charge of your own masterpiece. And no one knows better than you, how the story should go.

When: Another big lesson, keep your own counsel, first, foremost, and final! Maybe, just possibly, it is time to dig out that story you started long ago which your advisor saw briefly but which now inhabits your bottom-most drawer. The one they’ve poked you consistently about to both workshop and expand on. But, maybe not! Like the Mama’s and the Pappas’s sang about in “Seasons in the Sun” every story has its time and place and only you can decide when that might be. Remember, not every tale you have brewing will be right for the intense workshop experience that is grad school. Don’t forget, audience is key. So if you don’t feel comfortable sharing, stick with a  piece that you do. It’s your show after all, and too many cooks in the kitchen can mess up your menu fast.

If you’re in an MFA program, congratulations! You’ve already done the hard work. You got in! Compared to that, the rest of it should be more simple. And it can be, if you grab the reins of your experience, shut out the many voices hurtling at you like a meteor and guide it how and where you want it to be. It’s a challenge, but doable. And most of all, keep writing! Think full steam ahead, and good luck as you scribe on into the new year!

lisa ciarfella headshotLisa Ciarfella is methodically making her way through her second year of the MFA program at California State University, Long Beach. Her writing interests slant towards the noir, hardboiled, and crime fiction tales, channeling inspiration from the like of iconic greats Jim Thompson, Paul Goodis and Raymond Chandler, and present day authors Paul D Marks, James Lee Burke and Paul Brazill.

Lisa’s writing includes a series of connected short stories and, she is in novel writing mode as we speak. And this January, Sezpublishing will feature her very first published short story, “Midnight in Alaska” in their debut Halloween anthology collection: Frightening

She looks forward to graduating and on the weekends can be found throwing Frisbees around the beach with her boyfriend and two pups, Lola, and Boo.


Frightening Book Cover

You’re Writing What? by Katherine Sanger

College Students

I’m one of those people who feels like I can never learn enough or get enough education. Whenever I can, I attend any workshops or events that are local. I get to as many conventions as possible. And I have gone to school for far too long now.

My last degree was an MFA in Creative Writing.

I selected the program carefully, making sure that it didn’t have dismissive language or didn’t specify that it only wanted ‘literary’ fiction. From research, I knew that many programs looked down on genre writing, and I saw no reason to make myself suffer for two years by writing things I had no interest in.

I’d heard, many times over, that “good writing is good writing.” That genre shouldn’t count in determining if something is good or bad. Writing should stand on its own, regardless of what type of writing it is.

Yet still, during my MFA, when we had a presentation on genre work one day, the “literary” authors giving the talk trashed genre work and mocked it. But then, ten minutes later, they used examples from “Carrie” by Stephen King to show us how passive voice can be used successfully in fiction writing.

Something was clearly wrong.

Later that day, I was in a student-led workshop, and talk turned to the third-term papers that we had to write. They had to be serious research papers, ones that could potentially get published. I brought up the fact that I intended to write one about horror. Another student told me that I couldn’t possibly do that – horror was not “academic enough.” Apparently, the fact that I had actually taken classes in horror, science fiction, fantasy, and gothic fiction while working on a previous Master’s degree didn’t count. Clearly, to him, there was no value to anything that fell into a “genre.”

My frustration level was high during that residency period. High enough that I eventually talked to the director of the program. I asked him flat out if genre fiction was considered “not good enough” for the program, and I told him of the discouragement that I’d encountered so far. He was not happy. He assured me – and re-assured me – that what I had always heard was right: good writing was good writing. He saw no reason why my paper on the use of humor in horror would be rejected by a faculty member, and he wondered if I had misunderstood the presentation. I hadn’t, but it was encouraging that he thought that way.

Throughout my MFA, I ran into the same problem again and again. However, I finally figured it out. The biggest problem was that the people who felt that genre fiction was a lesser form were just not familiar with it. It sold well, and so, in their minds, it was “commercial” fiction and had no value from a literature standpoint. Of course, these same people were all trying to write the next great American novel which, as far as I could tell, would also have to sell well. Didn’t that count as a commercial writing project?

I got lucky during my final semester. My mentor, who happened to be completely unfamiliar with anything genre, was extremely open to learning. When I told her my intent was to write a short story collection of stories that centered around Cthulhu eating people who were staying in a basement apartment over time, she asked me to send her reading material so that she could learn about Lovecraft and Cthulhu. She may not be able to pronounce Cthulhu, but she could read it, and she happily (it seemed to me, anyway), critiqued my stories. She would note where she was unsure if something I had included would be known by my intended audience, but otherwise, she focused on writing. Because good writing is, after all, good writing.

Katherine SangerKatherine Sanger was a Jersey Girl before getting smart and moving to Texas. She’s been published in various e-zines and print, including Baen’s Universe, Black Chaos, Wandering Weeds, Spacesports & Spidersilk, Black Petals, Star*Line, Anotherealm, Lost in the Dark, Bewildering Stories, Aphelion, and RevolutionSF, edited From the Asylum, an e-zine of fiction and poetry, and is the current editor of “Serial Flasher,” a flash fiction e-zine. She’s a member of HWA and SFWA. She taught English for over 10 years at various online and local community and technical colleges. You can check out links to her many, many blogs at or find her at Facebook or twitter.