Rachel Friedman just graduated from the Rutgers program this spring. I grabbed her for a few questions on what the experience was like, as well as what is next for her.
Tell us about yourself: Where are you from, how did you end up here, and where are you going next?
I’m from Manlius, a small suburb of Syracuse, N.Y. , about 4 ½ hours north of NYC. Our biggest attractions are a swan pond and, next to it, a kick-ass ice cream stand called Sno Top. I was a very serious musician growing up – a violist. I actually spent my first year of college in Boston studying with the principal of the Boston Symphony before deciding against a music career and transferring to the University of Pennsylvania to study literature. Right now I’m finishing up my book and planning a move into Manhattan, thanks to recession prices. I’m teaching a travel writing workshop at Rutgers in August, and a couple of creative writing courses at another college in the fall.
So—and this is very exciting to us all—I think you are the very first person in our class to have a book contract. Can you tell us about the book?
My book is about that time (immediately pre and post college) when we realize “real life” is about to begin and we have to do something with ourselves. For me, this transition was incredibly rocky because I had just quit music school and had to come to grips with the fact that being a musician wasn’t the sole substance of my identity anymore. Most kids go to university to figure out who they are. That’s the deal, right? We get these four, free-wheeling years to explore and then, in the U.S. at least, we’re expected to go out into the world and make something of ourselves. But I had always thought I already had my life figured out so when my musical ambitions dissolved, I had to, for the first time really, examine what I truly wanted while at the same time dealing with the pressures of what I thought I should want out of my life. The backdrop of this exploration is the year I spent traveling with an Australian friend (who had a very different outlook from my own) through Ireland, Australia, and South America. I think of my book as a coming of age story where travel, because of the ways it opens you up, is the setting for this self discovery. Fundamentally, it’s a book about figuring out who you want to be in the world.
How long has the book been in the writing, and when did you decide to write it?
I’ve been writing bits and pieces of it since I got back from traveling through South America, starting in 2004. I decided to write it when I was backpacking abroad and realized how few young Americans take the opportunity to travel for long stretches, something people from countries like Australia and Canada, among others, consider a rite of passage.
As a nonfiction writer, how do you see your challenges as a writer to be different or the same as your fiction writing and poetry writing peers?
Great nonfiction, in my opinion, uses many of the same techniques of fiction writing. At its essence, nonfiction has to be good storytelling – just like fiction and poetry. One of my favorite quotes on the genre is by V.S. Pritchett: “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.” A particular complexity of writing about oneself is the ability to see your own life as a narrative as well as to pick and choose and sculpt your narrative persona – the “you” that works for your story. You have to let go of showing the full range of who you are because, as weird as it seems, real life “you” is not wholly relevant to story “you.”
I know you have been working at Rutgers Press while completing the program. Has working at an academic publisher influenced the way you read nonfiction, and/or the way you write?
The texts I worked with at RUP were mostly scholarly books so they are very different from what I write. Having said that, I came to have an even more serious appreciation for good nonfiction writers, an additional skill to being an excellent scholar. What working at RUP also gave me was an understanding of publishing and editing that’s been very helpful as a writer. Also, I had the opportunity to read a lot of book proposals and that was beneficial when it came to “marketing” my book to agents.
Besides getting philosophical about the intersection between your writing and publishing, it must have been a challenge to work full time and complete the program in two years. How has working full-time changed you as a student?
I completely underestimated how differently I would approach the program now that I was no longer a full-time student. Before the MFA program, I always had the luxury of focusing almost exclusively on my studies (I did have a part-time job during my Master’s and the occasional bartending gig on and off during my undergrad years, but nothing that didn’t benefit from a few tequila shots). When I started the MFA I was working full-time and I had just gotten married, and adopted a dog with separation anxiety who made it his personal mission to destroy our apartment every time we left, so my proverbial plate was pretty full. I had to manage my time extremely efficiently and not beat myself up for being unable to give every course 100%. I basically interpreted the MFA program as a vehicle for pursuing the work that mattered to me, as opposed to stressing about grades, as I had always done in the past. It was quite liberating once I let myself off the hook for only having so many hours in a day. (Also, I was able to graduate in two years (plus a summer course) because some four of my M.A. classes transferred as literature credits.)
Has your perspective on the MFA degree changed at all since you have begun (and now completed) one?
Yes, and I’m still struggling with what I feel are the pros and cons of MFA programs. At their best, they give you the space, encouragement, and academic deadlines to propel your work – as well as putting you in an environment with lots of other writers. Having said that, I think MFA programs are inherently a strange fit within academia. They don’t seem to have any core curriculum, per se, as most other degrees do. At the same time, they strike me as desirous to abstain from such a particular pedagogical approach in order to maintain their artistic integrity or individuality, or something else inherently conflicting in undertaking a scholarly study of an art form.
Any advice for those of us who want to write non-fiction at Rutgers?
I’m not sure where the nonfiction part of the MFA program is headed, but you can always hunt down the RU professors who excel in nonfiction – Rigoberto Gonzalez and James Goodman – and beg/bribe/trick them into reading your work!