Friday, September 23, 2016

Tips on Giving a GREAT Craft Lecture at Your Low-Res MFA

~Dedicated to my past, present, and future fourth semester students

This semester, I’m working with two fabulous, about-to-graduate students in the Converse low-res MFA program, and part of the requirement of the mentoring is to help them adapt their big research paper written during the third semester into a lecture that they deliver before the entire faculty (and student body). YIKES! Usually, I work with them specifically on the nuts-and-bolts of their papers (cut your intro here; you need another source here) and also offer general thoughts on delivering such a talk…so why not help John and Manny with the specifics as usual, but this time give the whole wide world my general thoughts on delivering such a talk?! (I'll add that this advice probably applies to a number of settings, such as presenting a panel at AWP.)

Caveat: I don’t know how other low-res MFAs work or what, exactly, their requirements are, so I’m basing my suggestions on what I’ve seen works in our setting, which is a 20-25 minute talk followed by intense Q&A, all wrapped up within 30 minutes. Beyond the logistical parameters, each program will have its own culture and style, so if you’re reading this and graduating from a different program, be mindful that my thoughts are based on the Converse culture and style.

Still, in the end, a good lecture is a good lecture, so I think we can all learn something here. (Including me—I give a craft lecture at each residency and I assure you that every time is nerve-wracking. It’s a stressful situation, not only speaking in public, but speaking SMARTLY and effectively in public, and not really “public” because who cares what a bunch of strangers think—but speaking smartly to your peers and colleagues, the people we most want to impress, and the FACULTY.)

If that paragraph didn’t terrify you enough then perhaps this will: As a faculty member watching and evaluating these talks, I have come to realize that the craft lecture tends to be my greatest, most lasting impression of a student and how successful they were in the program. That may not seem fair—and, admittedly, I’ve worked with the fiction students in workshop and individually so I have a larger view of their scholarship and writing—but in the other genres, it’s only this talk and their graduating reading of creative work. And something about this final craft talk, the high pressure situation and the high stakes, really lock down how I feel about this person as he or she enters the writing community. Will I go out of my way to help? Will I happily introduce this person to my writer friends at AWP? Will I write a glowing letter of rec? (Not that I expect anyone to care about what I think beyond the program, and not that I have any sort of magical power to bestow on people…just that I have limited time and energy to help writers starting out, and I simply need a way to focus my enthusiasm. Trust me, my approval is no big deal…but if you’re about to give a craft lecture, do think about the teacher whose approval IS a big deal for you.)

So a few quick tips and/or observations:

I’m assuming you’ve worked with your mentor on the text of the talk. Basics: intro, topic, conclusion. Use appropriate examples from the text. Quote outside sources. Keep your focus tight. Twenty minutes is not a long time (though it may feel like an eternity as you stand there.)

We don’t require the use of technology in our talks, and it turns out that for better or worse, most of our faculty (and even guest speakers) shy away from it. I avoid technology—because it creates one more thing to worry about. The last thing I want to do on my craft lecture day is run around with cords and laptops, going freaking out of my mind because something won’t sync. Also, speakers staring at a slide on the screen seem to forget time and space and go on and on and on; it’s easy to over-speak with technology. Also, it’s a distraction for the audience as much as an enhancement…when will that creepy picture of Poe go away? Oh, look, the computer logged off. Etc. So, if you MUST use technology, be an expert in it and get to the room EARLY and test out EVERYTHING, including the lights and where you stand and how where you stand affects viewers from throughout the room. (How annoying is it to be a member of the audience who can’t read the poem on the screen because the speaker’s giant head is smack in the way?)

At Converse, you get no extra points for memorizing your talk or speaking off notecards vs. reading it off pieces of paper. In fact, we urge our students to read. I know that sounds “boring,” but I’d rather listen to a good reader vs. someone saying “um” every two seconds or someone who misjudges the time and runs out with four more points left on the outline. If you’ve done a lot of teaching/speaking, probably you can pull off speaking from notecards or an outline…but think about what I said above: this is your big presentation in front of your peers and faculty. Write out your talk, and read it in a clear, animated (but not crazily so! It’s not a performance!), PROFESSIONAL way. Double-space the pages, and maybe even use a larger font (if you don’t want to wear your glasses).

Handouts. I love them. (Sorry, trees…I try to use recycled paper.) What I love about them is that A) if the talk involves reading passages of text, it’s easier for the audience to follow along and feel engaged; and B) this is your chance to begin to learn the lovely realities of where “marketing” meets the literary world…don’t audiences like to take something home? Shouldn’t that something have your name on it? Speaking of handouts—either put them out on chairs before your talk or ask one of your friends to pass them out as you begin. DON’T spend valuable minutes of your craft talk wandering around distributing pieces of paper. DO staple them in advance! DO have more copies than you think you’ll need. DO print them on the nicest paper you can afford if you really want to stand out.

What to wear? Well, I can’t come over to your house to pick something out of your closet—as fun as that would be—and, in theory, you can wear whatever you want. But I’ll use this word again: PROFESSIONAL. Of all the things you will do in your graduate program and in the writing world to follow, this is probably the time where you want to look your best, where you want to dress up—not in a cocktail dress sort of way, but in a professional sort of way. Like a job interview. (That said, try not to wear anything so uncomfortable that it will distract you. If you can’t stand comfortably for 30 minutes in heels, then good lord, no, don’t wear them—no matter how cute they look.) Exude quirky personal style in your reading and your life…but please act professional at your lecture. (Men, this may mean a tie and/or a jacket. At least it probably means NOT a dirty T-shirt.)

Your craft talk will be followed by Q&A. I advise my students to think ahead to questions that may be asked. Lots of times the faculty will ask questions, and if you’ve been to enough talks (which you have, right, because you’ve been attending the talks of previous graduates, right?), patterns may emerge. This faculty member often wonders about such-and-such; another maybe brings up this-and-that. As you think about these patterns—and the possible questions ahead—you have two choices: prepare an answer to that question OR shut the door on that question in your talk. (As a quick example: I often ask questions about women writers…if your paper included four books, and two were by women, and you tell us upfront that in the interest of time you’re focusing on this particular book by a man…well, then I don’t have to ask my woman writer question.)

More on questions, because no matter how well you prepare, someone will ask a hard question or a question you can’t answer. It’s been my observation that the hard questions usually take two tacks:

1. It’s a question that is being asked because the questioner (usually faculty) sees a gaping hole in the talk and is giving you the chance to fill it.


2. The questioner is so excited about your talk that his/her brain is working overtime and here’s a question that takes the topic further. As hard as it can be at the moment, that type of question is a tremendous compliment, especially if it’s asked by a faculty member. You made something think!!

In either event, take a breath. Stave off panic for a moment: “What an interesting question.” And do your best! Rephrase the question if you must, to make sure you understand. And I think an answer is better than no answer—so if you’re really lost, don’t tell us that; instead, tell us something you DO know.

(The third type of hard question is the question that’s really a comment, or worse, someone grabbing the opportunity to talk about how much they know. Just listen avidly [which you really have to do in case a question finally DOES pop up!], agree, and move on, perhaps with mental gratitude that the blow-hard has soaked up some of your stressful question time.)

I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but maybe you should know: no questions means that the audience got lost or drifted off and is now afraid to ask anything in case it was covered. Unfortunately, no questions does not mean you covered everything perfectly. (Don’t tell anyone you heard this here, but maybe have a friend set up who will ask a question if no one else does.)

And lastly about the Q&A: I see that often people are very professional in their presentation, and suddenly it’s Q&A time and they’re slouching, fiddling with their hair, interrupting the questioner to crack a joke. I get it—the hard part feels over, and all that adrenaline needs a release. But in a presentation such as this, you are not finished until you sit down. Be, yes, PROFESSIONAL throughout. Yes, your teachers may be relaxed during their Q&A after their craft lectures (and, honestly, throughout their lectures maybe)—but, as unfair as it may be, that is different. They have, presumably, earned respect through their achievements. You, in this presentation are NOW EARNING that respect. “Earning” is different than “being given.”

All the elements about being a good speaker come into play here: don’t sway and shift your weight; make eye contact; don’t read too fast; exude confidence; pre-open the top on your bottle of water; don’t flip/fiddle with your hair…all the rest. The way to exude confidence is to practice, practice, practice! Film yourself, or practice in front of a mirror or in front of that friend who will tell you (kindly) what you’re doing wrong. Also, practice in front of that person who will tell you you’re absolutely brilliant because we all deserve to appear brilliant to someone. Look up tricky words and learn how to pronounce them...including the author's name! Maybe there are words you don't know you're saying incorrectly...that's where it's helpful to read your talk in front of a smart friend who will gently correct you--maybe some of your fellow grads?

I’m assuming you will also deliver a reading of your creative work to the faculty and student body. THAT is the time to offer (brief) thanks and gratitude; your craft lecture is NOT that time. Just greet the group, maybe make a tiny, mildly amusing comment if you have one and if you are the kind of person who can pull it off, then announce the title of your talk and jump in.

YOU CAN DO IT! We want you to succeed!

Honestly, there is nothing more exciting to me than listening to an impressive student craft lecture that teaches me something, that makes me think a new way about a topic; nothing more fun than running to join the cluster of well-wishers afterwards, showering compliments on a great job; nothing more thrilling than watching our students SOAR after these years of hard, hard work. High stakes, yes, but also high reward. Good luck, everyone!

While this post isn’t geared specifically to low-res MFA programs, here are my tips about giving a good reading:

More info about the Converse low-res MFA…we’d love to have you join us!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.