Published MFA Alum Hard At Work On Second Novel
With the ceremonial reading of an excerpt from her thesis at a special graduation event atop Lone Mountain in December 2012, Courtney Moreno completed the MFA in Writing program at USF. Just under two years later, her thesis would be known as In Case of Emergency, McSweeney’s latest release, available at your local bookstore.
After The MFA
According to Moreno, the period of time between graduation from the MFA program and publication of In Case of Emergency was a frenzy of obsessive writing and rewriting, exchanging the manuscript with her editor “like a ping pong ball,” and always — always — thinking about the book, the “obligatory alternation between euphoria and despair around how the book would turn out and how it would be received.”
“I must have done other things during that time but I don’t remember what,” she said.
The MFA program mandates two one-on-one thesis mentorship studies, one in the summer of the students’ first year (after their first two semesters), and one in their final semester. This direct sustained close attention to her work was, according to Moreno, instrumental in developing and shaping her first book.
“I'm the kind of person who understands concepts best when I see them applied in real time,” she said. “To have my novel — and not just pages from my novel — wrecked and rebuilt, to discuss how plot arcs can layer, and to play with juxtaposition and sentence structure while thinking of the book as a whole, all felt invaluable.”
The mentorship also prepared Moreno for working with her editor at McSweeney's. “It wasn't a shock to hear someone say, do we need this chapter?” she said.
The Guiding Hands
Any program’s faculty can make or break a program. This is particularly true of MFA programs. Fortunately for MFA students at USF, they seem to be in adept hands. In fact, what Moreno remembers most fondly about the program are those guiding hands, the faculty members who changed the way she thought about writing.
“I learned so much from Stephen Beachy, Karl Soehnlein, and Lewis Buzbee,” she said. “When I read stories or novels, or when I edit my own work, I can hear their voices in my head. In a good way.”
“But when I write,” she added, “I shut everything out and just write.”
The MFA doesn’t necessarily end upon graduation — it can follow you for the rest of your life.
“I get together now and then for coffee with a couple of the teachers, and the friendships I made with other students feel like absolute gifts,” Moreno said.
As a performer, she is used to a more collaborative kind of art-making, which is, in a sense, what an MFA program is. Writing is a lonely endeavor. The type of community an MFA program breeds, during and after, is crucial toward alleviating that loneliness and, for students like Moreno, making writing a collaborative art-making.
“I'm exchanging pages now with someone who was in the program with me, whom I was never in workshop with, whose writing I'd never read, but somehow we found each other,” Moreno said. “He'll send me short stories and I’ll send him excerpts from the new book and then we'll spend fifteen minutes on the phone hurling critiques and compliments at each other. It's fun.”
Book Number Two
With a day job at UCSF Pediatric Hospital and a side gig performing locally and internationally with an aerial dance company called Bandaloop, Moreno tends to stay very busy. That said, she is much calmer writing her second novel.
“For one thing, I don't have a book deal or an agent or an MFA program, and for another thing I'm trusting myself more. I tend to be very goal-oriented and deadline-based and hard on myself, without any outside help. I've also vowed to enjoy it more this time — the entire process — even the awkward, it's-ALL-ugly-baby beginning stage.”
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