As my time in graduate school draws to a close, commencement this June, I remember this is what my first term mentor said.
My thesis is a historical novel with anthropomorphic dogs in late Prohibition-era New York. For those who follow me on Twitter and through my ‘In Pretty Print‘ blog, I’ve been ranting/raving throughout its process. It had been a pet project of mine since sixth grade (!). I wrote the story on and off, using it as fodder to make my writing chops stronger in other areas before it went in a drawer or computer folder to be forgotten.
I became so disgusted with it that I prayed if I could get into a writing program that would give me the time to make it into something, I would actually complete it. If not, I would put it away forever. After all, I had other story ideas vying for attention, and I didn’t want to waste my writing on a piece that was going nowhere.
In November 2012, I found a promising MFA that actually responded to my queries. The program was in my state and I could get to its campus by train. The MFA was a hybrid-residency. This meant that for part of the year I’m on campus, meeting with schoolmates, faculty, and staff. For the rest of the term, I would work and submit online under the tutelage of a mentor chosen for me.
The deadline for submission to the program would be the last week in January 2013. By December 2012, I contacted both alma maters for transcripts, typed up a personal statement, and worked on a chapter from the dreaded manuscript to fit the school’s submission guidelines.
And then I prayed again.
I was told that I would receive a response by mid-April. This meant I’d start in summer term.
However, my mother has prescient dreams and when she said I would get into this program, I believed her. When March started, I received a call that I had been accepted!
June 2013 came. A mentor had been chosen for me, which made sense since I wouldn’t be familiar with anyone. Though I’ve been in other writing workshops thanks to my former community college, I felt intimidated by the fact that my chosen mentor was an internationally published horror novelist and I’ve never been a fan of horror though I respect the genre and its devotees.
I was also the only ‘furry’ in my workshop group. Thankfully, it was a small group of six and my mentor, as far as I knew, was not familiar with my genre, yet immediately tackled my chapters with academic gusto and literary fervor.
“It isn’t doggy enough,” he finally said, his German-accent colored after years of living in the U.S.
“I don’t feel the dogginess,” he told me.
I was stumped. What could I do? This had been a story near and dear to me, but after years of publishing other items, I knew that I’d reach critical mass with this piece. It was a dead-end.
“You’ll have to show more canine characteristics. I feel they are humans in fur coats.”
After I picked myself off the floor, my mentor offered several books for my recommended reading. Thankfully, all the titles were anthro and new to me!
The Bear Comes Home is a novel by Rafi Zabor, a jazz musician. The protagonist is an anthropomorphic bear who, with his ‘human handler’, goes from night club to night club playing his alto sax.
Next was the novel Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis. This story runs more along the lines of The Island of Dr. Moreau with bio-engineered dogs using advanced prostheses to stand and move about upright.
The novel Felidae by Akif Pirincci is considered a crime/detective novel featuring a cat and his human who move into a suburb in Germany. The cat protagonist sets out to solve the mystery when the local cats begin to turn up mutilated and dead.
Paul Auster’s novel Timbuktu is told through the eyes of a dog living with his homeless owner. The dog doesn’t ‘talk’ but is a mild observer. After his owner dies, the dog strikes out alone to find his human’s fabled ‘Timbuktu’.
Last was the screenplay Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov, a Russian playwright and satirist. During the Bolshevik-era, a scientist brings home a stray dog. After experimenting, the dog becomes a human man and mayhem ensues.
I tackled the story with a renewed vigor. My mentor also pointed out that I would have to bring about the ideas of race I struggled with to portray what made sense for dogs.
He told me that as NYC has always been culturally diverse, where were the different dogs located in the city? What breeds lived where? With his help, I dug deeper into the story than I’d ever done.
I was so pleased that I requested him for a second term. The program obliged — as a student can be allowed the same mentor twice — and the second semester became even more eye-opening. One particular chapter I swore nearly choked up my mentor. Though I received constructive criticism from classmates whose own works I admired, that day when my mentor explained how profound he felt towards the workshopped chapter and later his beaming feedback to an online assignment, I knew I was on the right track.
This journey began with a community college English professor telling me to consider creative writing, to the creative writing professor who said ‘Continue to write about these talking dogs’, and finally, to my professor/mentor, a published novelist, becoming excited by what I wrote. This is why I’m a writer.
My thesis will be several chapters of a brand-spanking new manuscript. I will have written the best pages I could. After graduation, I plan to continue the novel, with all the lessons that brought me to this moment. This is why I continue to write furry.