The Interdisciplinary Thing

Post for The MFA Years

I’m now a semester and a half into my MFA, and one of the things I’m finding incredibly (and surprisingly, in my specific case) rewarding about being at Michener is the interdisciplinary focus. Our program requires everyone to declare a primary and secondary genre, but on top of that, we also take a multi-discipline first year seminar together with our entire cohort of fiction writers, poets, playwrights and screenwriters, and we’re allowed to take classes in disciplines that are neither our primary nor secondary genre.

I hadn’t thought much about this when I applied to Michener. I know for some people this is a big draw, because they already write some combination of fiction / poetry / plays / screenplays. But I was very much a fiction person. I’d never read much poetry outside of literature classes in high school, let alone written a single poem. I loved going to plays but would never think to try writing one. And I certainly don’t watch as much film as I would like (I find it kind of stressful — TV and movies give me overly vivid dreams, it’s a long story…). So while the interdisciplinary nature of Michener’s program sounded like a lot of fun — who wouldn’t want to learn to write new things! — it wasn’t something I had given a ton of consideration to both when applying and when making my choice to come here. I guess this post is for those of you who might feel the same way right now. Perhaps you’re a steadfast fiction reader and writer as I was, or you only do poetry or plays or screenplays. Perhaps you’re nervous about working in a different discipline (as I was) or you’re worried it will take time away from your primary discipline (it will, but it’s worth it!).

In our first year seminar, we read and workshopped across disciplines. Some of the benefits are obvious: having a poet focus their attention on the cadence of your sentences or the effectiveness of a convoluted mixed metaphor, having playwright point out when a narrative isn’t progressing quite as logically as it could or when action is stalled, having a screenwriter critique your dialogue. Workshopping with classmates who are not fiction writers has been incredibly helpful for my craft. But I am also inspired by the ways in which they think about their own craft and process — for example, poets who start writing poems with a fragment of an image in mind, screenwriters who write extensive outlines complete with act breaks and cliffhangers before diving into a draft, playwrights who begin with odd situations or concepts that they find stuck in their minds. Of course all of this applies within disciplines as well, and fiction writers themselves work in many different ways. But I have found that when I am feeling stuck, trying to approach my writing like one of my poet / playwright / screenwriter classmates can often help me come unstuck. For me personally, this has been most apparent when it comes to plot and story, something I’ve always struggled with. Making a narrative advance has often felt like drawing blood from a stone, and watching the ease with which playwrights and screenwriters bandy around alternative plot lines, potential twists, character motivation has helped me develop a better instinct for these things as well. I can’t say exactly how it happens — it’s that weird osmosis-like process of learning that takes place through being around people who are passionate about what they do and are eager to share that with you.

Of course, writing and reading in other disciplines has taken time away from my fiction. At times I’m frustrated because I’m not making as much progress with my novel or new stories as I feel like I should be. I’m in a TV writing class this semester, and it’s a lot of work plus because I’m new at writing scripts, I think it’s taking me extra long. I’m also in a poetry-heavy seminar, and I find that I (strangely?) can’t read poetry as quickly as I do novels. But I remind myself that as much as MFAs are about producing tangible work, it’s also about expanding the boundaries of our craft in whatever way possible, opening up new possibilities and stepping out of our comfort zones. And hopefully it all feeds the work in some invisible way.