Lessons Learned, Lessons Shared: ODU M.F.A. Graduate Sarah McCoy

by Valarie Clark

Sarah McCoy is a true M.F.A. success story. While there is an ongoing debate of the value of a Master’s degree in writing, and in creative writing programs generally, McCoy is an example of what a good M.F.A. experience can do for a writer, and why creative writing programs – while perhaps not the answer for everyone – are still an important part of the literary community. For those considering a creative writing M.F.A. program, or are already enrolled and wondering if they made the right choice, getting the perspective of a person who has “been there, done that” is invaluable.

McCoy is the author of the book The Time it Snowed in Puerto Rico, a sweet coming-of-age novel with an eleven-year-old protagonist living in Puerto Rico during the 1960s. The book was McCoy’s thesis for the creative writing M.F.A. program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia (home of Barely South Review), unpretentious and yummy – a literary cupcake. McCoy, hard at work on a third novel (her second is scheduled for release in late 2011), as well as sometimes teaching writing courses at the University of Texas in El Paso and doing freelance work, answered questions sent via email.

Sarah McCoy in person is incredibly friendly and seems to almost bubble with energy. She is an outstanding representative of Old Dominion University’s M.F.A. program, whether she wants to be or not, but McCoy does not regret her “poster girl” status; she graciously agreed to be one of our featured writers during the 33rd Annual ODU Literary Festival in 2010, where she read a chapter of her first book. Nor does she regret her time spent in the program. “I couldn’t have been happier. In ODU’s M.F.A program, I met some of the most instrumental people of my life and wrote my first novel,” McCoy writes.

What lead her to ODU? McCoy says she wrote her first book in pre-school, a series of devotionals for her parents, complete with a hand-drawn cover. Her time from elementary to high school was spent writing in all genres, and she finally attended Virginia Tech for journalism and public relations. Originally she wanted to be a news reporter on television, or write for magazines, but for financial reasons, she took a public relations job after graduation. “It put food on my table but didn’t exactly feed the soul,” she writes. “I spent my days doing technical writing and my nights writing fiction.” She applied to the M.F.A. program at ODU, impressed with the faculty. She quit her job to become a full-time student.

Although McCoy was a journalism student during her undergraduate years, when it comes to genre, she believes in what she calls “the Goldilocks Complex.” “Taste a bit of every bowl until you find what you’re craving. You’ll not only stretch your writing muscles, but also avoid that twenty-years-down-the-road moment when you wonder, ‘What if I’d done that instead of this?’”

McCoy wrote a short piece in 2005 that would eventually become the second chapter of her novel The Time it Snowed in Puerto Rico. Written while she studied with the ODU Writer-In-Residence at the time, author Sandra Scofield, she was inspired when Scofield commented, “Oh, but there’s so much more, isn’t there?”

During the summer of 2006, which would have been the summer before her second year of studies in the program, she “sequestered” herself in her apartment and spent the three months writing the first draft of the novel. Her work was informed by her time spent as a child with her maternal grandparents in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. They owned a farm in the mountains there, and for McCoy, whose childhood was spent moving on average every year-and-a-half when her Army officer father was stationed someplace new, that farm was a constant in a world of change. The memories of that place, and the people who lived there became the backbone of her novel, little Verdita stepping in for McCoy herself. The book takes place in 1961, a time of political upheaval for the island as some sought independence from the U.S.

After those initial three months of writing, McCoy began the serious business of revision. “I believe the true creative writing ‘work’ is in the revision process,” she writes. “While the foundational story was written over a summer, it took nearly a year of revising to bring the novel into a cohesive narrative. I threw away five chapters, rewrote new ones, changed the beginning and ending ten times. I was swapping words and sentences until the day before my Random House editor sent the manuscript to production.” This is not great news for those of us who dread the revision process, but the results speak for themselves, and as McCoy puts it, “I don’t put a lot of stock in writers who refuse to edit their work. Nobody is perfect in the first draft. Hemingway said it best (‘The first draft of anything is shit.’). I have it scrolling on my computer screensaver.”

Having the support of the M.F.A. program helped as well. “I was fortunate in that I had many astute M.F.A. mentors read and critique [the book]. By the time it landed on my publisher’s desk, all there was left to do was line edit polishing.”

Writing the book, though, is only part of the process, unless a writer is content to put the manuscript in a drawer and never see it published. “From what I’ve gleaned from the literary business, it is virtually impossible to have your work read by a publisher if it does not come through an established agency.” So much for the slush piles of days past. McCoy detailed her own search for representation. “Finding an agent can be harder than finding a publisher. In my experience, it took eight months of query and rejection letters to find a suitable agent.” McCoy suggests that writers develop a thick skin for this reason. “Agents are incredibly picky about who and what they take into their portfolio. They have to be. They have limited time and a lot at stake.” Moreover, McCoy wasn’t content to settle for just any agent, a relationship that has the potential to span decades. “It was critical for me to find an agent bearing a list of noteworthy clients with a similar writing style. Living in Texas, I have to have someone working on my behalf in New York. The trick is to find someone as passionate about your writing as you are. I’m incredibly blessed to have the talented agent and editorial team that I do, but finding those people didn’t come easy.”

McCoy’s agent landed her a two-book deal with Random House for The Time it Snowed in Puerto Rico and a second novel in first draft form. That book, The Baker’s Daughter, which McCoy says is at least twice the length of her first book, is about two women, one in present-day El Paso, Texas, and the other in Germany in the final days of WWII. As the December 2011 drop date for that second novel approaches, McCoy is hard at work editing her third book, Mercy Seasons (a chapter of which is featured in this month’s issue of Barely South Review). “A successful and wise novelist at ODU told me to never stop writing – to always be working on the next project. That’s excellent advice! So while one book may be on the shelves, another is in the production process, another in the editorial, and I’m scheming away on a fourth novel in preliminary journal scribblings and plot diagrams. I view the book biz as being similar to agriculture: you plant the seeds, till and work the land, water, wait and pray over long periods of time to eventually harvest the fruit.”

A glimpse into McCoy’s “writing” days provides a good idea of what it’s like to be a published author. “I’m typically at my desk by 9 a.m. I check emails for an hour, corresponding with my editor, agent, book clubs, etc. on East Coast time. Afterwards I work on whichever manuscript is currently in need of attention until 1:30 p.m. No emails, no Internet surfing, no music, no TV and no phone calls [while I write]. I take a break for lunch. This is usually one to two hours, depending on if I need to stretch my legs in which case I’ll go for a jog or a walk. I’m back at my laptop no later than 3:15 p.m. to write until 6:30 p.m. Then I allow myself to dillydally a bit: email friends, check in with my webmaster (McCoy has a blog, as well as a website dedicated to her books and career), see what shenanigans my grandparents are up to on Facebook. I brainstorm in my journal and make my ‘To Do’ list for the following day until my husband arrives home.” Her work day usually ends around 7 or 8 p.m. “Then I shut my laptop. We both work such long hours (McCoy’s husband is in the Army and works at a military hospital in El Paso) that I make a point to spend the few we have at night together. Besides, when he walks in, the television customarily comes on and my writing bubble is broken by the sounds of ESPN, dinner frying and stories of his workday at the hospital, which completely captivates me.”

Not that those hours are unproductive. Consider the plot of her third novel: “Set in a free medical clinic run by an order of Puerto Rican nuns during the early ‘90s, two medical recruits are pushed to extremes in both their work and their personal lives.” McCoy calls it an “antithetical love story that teeters on the tightrope between love and hate.”

Sometimes, though, the muse won’t be denied. “There are mornings my husband wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to find me typing away at my laptop with an idea that won’t let me sleep.” And she’s no robot either. “Then some days, life won’t let me write at all – and that’s okay too. I try to keep in mind that although I am a creature of habit, writing is an organic process.”

Most newly-published writers must balance the writing life with another job that helps pay the bills. “I teach writing courses at the University of Texas at El Paso when necessary and write feature articles for a handful of magazines (McCoy’s work has been featured in, among others, Your Health Monthly and the online magazine The Millions). “My husband is in the Army, and we are fortunate to be stationed in El Paso, Texas, which has one of the lowest costs of living in the United States. So unless we suddenly decide to take up yachting through the Mediterranean, I am financially able to pick my paid projects and teaching engagements. I’m absolutely content living on a budget so long as I’m able to write full time, and I have an amazing husband who advocates for my work and art.”

McCoy’s nonfiction articles have occasionally inspired her fiction. “There’s a story in everything under the sun, and I love nothing more than unearthing the plot pieces. All of my fiction ideas have been sparked by true-life experiences I’ve had or come to know of through my journalism.”

What she doesn’t have time for is writing short fiction for the purpose of submitting it for publication. “I haven’t had the available time to devote to short stories. All of my creative energy has been channeled into my novels, my blog and writing for other publications over the past few years. On a whim, I’ve challenged myself to write a short story or two using an interesting new craft technique, but I recognize those as exercises. They stay under lock and key.” McCoy remembers what Scofield told her long ago with that story about Verdita. “My shorter fiction is usually a jumping off place for a longer one. After I write a shorter piece, I hear [her] voice in my mind, ‘There’s so much more, isn’t there?’ And whatever it is I’m working on usually becomes a chapter in one of my books.”

When asked what she thinks is the most important thing she learned while getting her M.F.A., McCoy gives a response helpful for all writers, whether they be students in a program or writing in the wee hours before going off to work. “The greatest lesson I took away from my M.F.A. program was that the mightiest tool in a writer’s tool belt is perseverance. If you can’t take being stoned on a daily basis then get a job as a doctor, a lawyer, a mechanic – heck, be a zoologist, work on a cruise boat and see the world, or make some serious cash selling pharmaceuticals! There are so many amazing vocations out there. If you can’t take being criticized by your peers and yourself on an hourly basis, then you should pick another career that brings you joy. Keep writing! Always keep writing. But to make this business your fulltime occupation, you’ve got to have your feet firmly planted forward and your heart already climbing the mountain no matter how many rocks tumble down on top of you.”

When asked, “What sort of writer do you feel would benefit from an M.F.A. program?” McCoy’s response applies to all writers. A good student of writing is “humble” and is “fully aware that his or her writing is insufficient. “There are far too many divas in the creative writing world. We should seek to share and learn from one another as artists struggling to improve.”

Her advice for writers in M.F.A. programs is extremely pragmatic, somewhat surprising, and can be taken to heart by all writers. “The goal is to write stories that move people’s hearts and minds. That doesn’t necessarily mean penning the most poetic paragraph of all time or writing a description that makes you weak from its impeccable crafting. Those are well and good, and we should aim for the highest caliber in our prose. However, I’ve learned from my publication experience that 99 percent of the time, readers just want a writer to broaden their horizons – make them care about something or someone. Laugh, cry, flowery summaries or clipped dialogue, most don’t have a particular preference. They simply want to read a good story that they can’t put down.”

McCoy is an M.F.A. success story, and she acknowledges that M.F.A. programs provide educational opportunities and a support system that can be difficult to find outside of the academic world. But, “the bottom line is that we are storytellers, first, foremost and always.” Her final advice to those who write? “Imagine the kind of story you would want to read snuggled under your favorite blanket beside a fire on a frosty winter’s night. Got it in mind – feel it? Now, go, write that story.”

Also in this issue, an excerpt from McCoy’s upcoming novel:
From Mercy Seasons

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Valarie is a 2009 transplant from Alaska who is currently very displeased with Southeast Virginia’s weather. Most of her written work has been read by government officials reviewing grant proposals from nonprofit agencies, but she has some more readily-accessible scribblings available on AltDaily.com. She’s the current Managing Editor for Barely South Review and urges all potential contributors to proofread and make sure their cover letters are addressed to the correct publication.