Creative Writing

The Making of Ben Stempton’s Boy, Part 3

I’d been back in public education for about eight years, long enough to be getting burned out again. I was sputtering along with the writing and thinking about retirement, knowing I had a long way to go. I would have to renew my certificate one more time before I got there. Thinking about my salary and my upcoming pension led me to an important discovery.

On the back of my current certificate, which was a T5, or Masters level, I saw that the T6, or Specialists level, could be achieved through an MFA degree. This was during a time when Georgia was interested in recruiting teachers from other fields. It took a while for me to grasp the possibilities. I thought the MFA category was there as a nod to art teachers; it certainly wouldn’t apply to an English teacher. Or would it?

I asked curriculum people and administrators in my system if it was possible for me to upgrade with an MFA. They knew of no such thing. The only route they could speak for was through an EdS degree program. I’d been stuck at the T5 level for a long time because I had no desire to take more education courses. I’d had enough of that stuff.

To be honest, I thought most of what passed for academic instruction in those programs was an exercise in qualifying and quantifying and assigning elaborate new names and acronyms to what should be common knowledge—concepts and practices we already knew—along with analyzing “research” that was plainly designed to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. Parameters, hierarchies, jargon, and all manner of inclusive and exclusive lists abounded, along with terms related to “brain-based” learning, as if there are other kinds. In my mind these programs made a fairly simple act, teaching, unnecessarily complicated, and I wasn’t interested.

(Here I must apologize to those who have pursued and earned EdS and EdD degrees. I don’t mean to disparage your sacrifice of time and energy toward what for you must be a very fulfilling goal. You did good work and should be proud. Honestly, I just couldn’t focus on that stuff.)

I was interested, though, in writing and literature, so I made phone calls and wrote letters in hopes that an MFA degree would, in fact, lead to an upgraded certificate and a substantial pay raise. I may never have thought twice about those three letters and what they could do for me had it not been for my regular reading of Poets & Writers magazine. Within those pages I’d noticed a proliferation of ads for low-residency programs in creative writing. It became a wild hope that connecting my passion to my livelihood in a more remunerative way could somehow work.

Long story short: I got confirmation in writing from the Professional Standards Commission that I could indeed upgrade to the T6 level through earning an MFA in creative writing. I began applying to programs, and one day I got an acceptance call from Fred Leebron, director of the program at Queens University of Charlotte. I was fifty-three years old at the time, but the news made me feel thirty years younger.

The program was intense. There were craft seminars, a lengthy required reading list, and analytical papers to write. The heart of the program, though, was the workshop. I’d never participated in such a thing, and to have others critique your work as you critiqued theirs, while intimidating at first, proved to be a life-changing experience. The submissions were discussed at length; that alone—having your work taken seriously by other writers—was gratifying. And thoroughly examining the writing of others to identify what was working and what wasn’t helped me to develop and define my own aesthetic.

And there were deadlines. Submission requirements for each semester had to be met, and the pages would be shared with a discerning audience. I wrote, revised, and critiqued my fingers to the bone while I held down my day job of teaching high school English. The program only required a week on campus each semester, the remainder of work being done via distance learning. It worked out for me and didn’t seem like drudgery. I loved it and, I daresay, thrived within that program.

I gained skill in controlling point of view and narrative voice, although I still struggle with these elements. I learned how to transition through time. I realized the importance of writing “in scene.” I learned how to read like a writer and vice versa. I slowly began to understand the concept of tight writing and “trimming twigs.” I studied and struggled with many other aspects of the craft of writing and gained proficiency in most of them. Learning to write well is a life-long pursuit that is never mastered. This is true of all the arts and most any endeavor worth doing.

The requirements of the Queens MFA program along with the camaraderie, discussions, and the friendships that developed caused me to begin seeing myself as a real writer. Proceeding accordingly resulted in finishing the manuscript, revising it numerous times, and sending it out ad nauseam until it finally found a home with Unsolicited Press of Portland, Oregon.

I am thankful for the guiding hand that caused myriad incidents and circumstances to fit together in such a way that this novel has become a reality. I’m also thankful to all those who helped and encouraged and put up with me during this lengthy process.

I hope you all enjoy reading Ben Stempton’s Boy!





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