Post-MFA Profile: Evan James Roskos

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting profiles of students who just graduated from the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark. It’s an opportunity to learn about the MFA experience from the inside out and to meet some great writers.

So, allow me to introduce Evan James Roskos. Don’t be fooled by the allergy-laden picture. When Evan takes his pen to the page, he takes no prisoners. If you don’t believe me, read his short story “Conspiracy of Males” which recently appeared in Granta: New Voices.

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If your bio were to appear in the New Yorker, what would it say?

Something pithy like: “New Jersey is a state. Evan James Roskos is a writer. They like to work on stories together.” Although The New Yorker might not be cool with that.

What’s your first move now that you’re graduating?

Like any good dancer, I have a couple of moves. Move 1: I will complete work on the short story collection (Conspiracy of Males) that I started in the MFA program. I’m not sure whether I’ll send that out to agents immediately, though, as the market for short story collections is sketchy (as I am constantly told).

Move 2: I’m going to begin work on a novel that has been rumbling around my skull for a while.

Of all the books you’ve read in the last two years, what are some that “knocked your head off”?

God is Dead by Ron Currie, Jr.

This is a collection of linked stories about a world where God appears on Earth and dies. The resulting chaos is fascinating. Aside from the comedy of Colin Powell speaking like Samuel L. Jackson, Currie manages to take some deeper ideas to strange conclusions. What’s more fun is that Currie doesn’t seem to be preaching about some kind of holy importance of God other than showing how the concept of God can be replaced by forces that are just as destructive or spiritually engaging. I love it so much that just writing about it makes me want to read it again. (He also has a new novel out in June.)

Other notable reads (and I do realize that these are all male writers): The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Grab on to me Tightly as if I Knew the Way by Bryan Charles, and Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno.

Do you have any advice for incoming students?

1) Be prepared to learn how to write before you get to really write what you want. The best way to learn the craft is to try different techniques. But some writers may balk at writing scenes that may not appear in a final draft or rewriting a story in a way that he or she knows will not be the real “final” version. It’s important to get over the idea that the first draft is an accurate version of the final draft.

2) Realize that you may learn more by reading and writing responses to the work of your fellow students than from the feedback you gain. This is not say you won’t get valuable feedback, it’s just important to realize that some people learn more from critiquing the work of others and seeing how things work from an outside perspective. For people who are interested in teaching writing, pay close attention to the way workshops are run, what questions seem helpful, what workshop leaders do to curb (or encourage) tangents.

3) Don’t hand in pieces that you finished writing a few days before the workshop. Writers who were able to write ahead (that is, write pieces during the summer or during winter break) were often at an advantage because they had clearer goals. They knew what they wanted the story to communicate, they knew which characters were more important, and they had a better idea of where the story needed to go. This allowed them to provide input in the workshop resulting in more substantial and helpful discussions. Pieces that weren’t ripe yet (and I handed in a couple in this state) often came across as such. As a result, much of the discussion focused on pretty obvious issues that the writer was already aware of. (Lots of comments like, “Yeah, I know that scene needs work.”)

4) You will need to swallow your pride and re-write pieces that you think are done, even if just to learn how the piece could be better than you can imagine. Getting over the fear of trashing an early draft is difficult but essential. Remember, no one says you have to permanently delete your favorite version. Just be willing to try different approaches to a story.

Has your perspective on the MFA degree changed at all?

While I could describe my ideal workshop and my desire for novel-writing craft courses, I’ll stick to things that are helpful to know ahead of time.

I probably would not have gotten as much from my MFA if I didn’t already have an MA in literature. Because of that, I was able to transfer in some credits and avoid taking literature courses at the same time as my workshops. It’s possible to spread the degree out over three years, but I imagine if I had tried to cram all of my writing and literary study into 4 semesters, I would have been less productive. Despite this, I do think a writer, to paraphrase Tom Jenks, needs to know what other writers have done before. So, courses that study literature are important. The trouble is that graduate literature courses do not necessarily focus on how writers construct novels and stories, and the fascination with literary theory has not waned enough to make things accessible for writers who may not care about theory. So writers coming into programs may find themselves caught between writing their own fiction and then trying to learn how to write scholarly, graduate-level papers for a couple of classes that will seem to take up more time than a writer might be interested in devoting.

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4 responses to “Post-MFA Profile: Evan James Roskos

  1. A lot of great advice here for writers considering applying to or already involved in MFA programs.
    However, I would argue that it’s extremely important to study literature if we are going to write literature, and it’s quite possible, at Rutgers Newark, in any case, to get a clear sense of which literature courses/professors one might choose, if one is less interested in theory, and more interested in reading as a writer. Our Writers At Newark: Contemporary American Lit course, for example, which is taught by MFA faculty for MFA students only, studies as textbooks selected work by writers who will be visiting and reading that semester; students can take this course more than once, as it is completely different every semester. As to novel-writing craft courses, it’s my sense that the short 2 year period of study in an MFA program is much better used to complete a great book of stories: writing stories teaches us to write novels. Honestly. A novel is better considered between an editor and a writer; the novel is simply not well adapted to a workshop format, in which the sweep of the novel, or the longer narrative arc, are just not obvious in bits and pieces. Thoughts?

  2. I definitely agree with what you’re saying Jayne Anne. And I should have been a bit clearer in my comments that my aim was not to discourage anyone from undertaking an MFA degree. the experience has been extremely beneficial to my writing and I have met a number of people who are now my trusted readers.

    I believe it’s IMPERATIVE that writers read books by a variety of authors and study how stories and novels are put together. I don’t think studying literature from a scholarly perspective is as beneficial as studying it from a craft perspective, though. While not all grad courses are steeped in theory or too esoteric for writers, there is a difference in the way MA and PhD students discuss fiction and the way writers discuss it. It’s like movie critics and movie directors — different concerns, different vocabulary, different relationship to the final product. While writers can learn from scholars and vice versa, it’s good to know ahead of time that there is a different approach.

    The Writers at Newark series is actually a great example of how writers can study literature without it being obfuscated by theory or scholarly pursuits. I think it’s a great supplement to an MFA’s reading series and often made the readings more compelling since there was a chance to ask the writer burning questions about intentions and inspirations.

    I also agree that a novel workshop is not a practical idea for an MFA. However, what I mention (albeit in passing) is the lack of novel craft courses. I think there are ways to teach techniques for handling complex plots, character development, setting in focused ways that would be useful to novelists or short story writers. Some of this is covered in workshops, but a course devoted to novel techniques would have been, for me at least, compelling. There are definitely books out there and I’ve gathered helpful information from the professors at Rutgers, but nothing beats a good craft course!

    I, too, would like to hear more thoughts from you or anyone who’s read this far.

  3. Pingback: Rutgers-Newark MFA: Blog

  4. Pingback: Rutgers MFA Reading Series, This Saturday at KGB Bar « Kanlaon

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