2017, April 2017, Archives, The MFA Years

Want to learn how to write? Become an autodidact

Image: The Dark Veil

If you’re familiar with the pros and cons of MFA programs in general, you’ve probably heard this advice before: an advanced degree in Creative Writing is not necessary for you to become a writer, but it can definitely help by giving you the time and validation you need to build confidence in your writing.

I’ve now completed two terms of my M.A. in Creative Writing program (two quarters actually, but because there’s no summer term there are only three quarters in one school year– I’m guessing whoever invented that system didn’t major in math), and I have enough experience at this program to confirm that advice, but also to qualify it.

In an MFA or MA Program, you will be treated seriously as a writer, and you will have more time than you otherwise would to write, especially if you’re coming back to school from the working world. However, if you are in a program that funds you via teaching assistantships or other university positions, you’re also going to have a lot of responsibilities that take up your time. Plus, not all of your courses will be about writing. I have taken a literature seminar and a workshop each quarter so far, and in the literature seminar, I struggle to keep up with the piles and piles of pages I’m expected to read. Also, if you’re like me, a compulsive workaholic, you’ll find crazy ways to add more burdens to your load, such as volunteering for 6 hours a week at a high school or grading practice SAT essays for extra money.

I reached my busyness limit at the end of this past Winter Quarter. This  Spring Quarter, to the best of my ability, I’m going to turn my attention back onto writing. Don’t get me wrong, all the experiences I had inside and outside the classroom last quarter were valuable for me in terms of developing myself as a writer, reader, and teacher, but together they were overwhelming. So I’ve decided to focus again on the reason why I came to grad school in the first place: becoming a better writer.

For all that I have benefited from writing workshops in my program thus far, I’ve realized that what I’m getting out of workshops is not enough to launch me as far as I want to go. I’ve realized that to improve my writing significantly, I need to self-direct my own learning.

Over spring break, I started working a plan for how to do so, incorporating advice from my professors so far. I’ve decided to share this plan with you all because you might find it useful for your own studies of writing.

  1. Write every day (this has been an elusive goal for me, but I’m going to work on meeting it).
  2. Read a short story every day and briefly jot down observations about its craft or content. I picked up a great book of short stories this break called New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus. It’s an anthology of contemporary short stories by a variety of authors. I want to expand my own familiarity with different literary fiction authors, and I thought this would be a good way to do so.
  3. Purposely imitate the styles of certain authors that I like, not for “real” pieces that I want to publish, just to experiment with voice.
  4. Work on revising stories I’ve produced these past two terms by taking the characters and placing them into different situations to see how they react in unexpected ways.
  5. Say writing affirmations.
    Last quarter, I took a course on teaching writing in a K-12 setting while volunteering in English classes at a high school. One of the guest speakers, a middle school teacher, showed us how she encouraged her students to write by giving them time to do free-writes and making writing part of their daily lives. I could really identify with this philosophy. As a part of the students’ daily writing routine, they would stand up together and recite the “5 Essential Affirmations” of writing, which originally comes from Pat Schneider’s book, Writing Alone and With Others. (If you want to see all of them, I found the affirmations listed on this blog. ) These affirmations end with the statement, “A writer is someone who writes… I write, therefore I am a writer.” For me, confidence as a writer has always been hard to maintain. I loved the idea of repeating these affirmations as a way of reminding myself before I write that, yes, this is what I’m meant to do.

I hope you feel inspired to write now, regardless of whether an MFA program is in your immediate future or not. Here’s one more piece of wisdom that I gleaned from my class on teaching writing from last quarter: a successful writer is always in a constant state of composition. This goes for children writing a story for their second grade class just as much as for a published novelist or a grad student writer. When you find yourself thinking about your writing–the words, the scenes, the characters, the lyrics, the lines, whatever it is that you’re writing– when you’re in the middle of doing other things, when you don’t even have a pen and paper in front of you, that’s when you know writing has become part of who you are. And once it’s there inside you, it doesn’t go away.