My DIY MFA

I have long resolved the internal debate about whether I should or shouldn’t, would or wouldn’t do an MFA.

Recently, I’ve been exploring an M.A. in Humane Education but, for the time being, that’s something I’m simply wishing into the world as I don’t have the time or finances to apply at this point in time.

While life has repeatedly taught me that nothing is ever completely off the table, I don’t see an MFA in my future, but I do want to make a deeper commitment to learning the craft of writing and dedicating more time to my fiction and creative non-fiction work.

Initially inspired by my friend Annie’s DIY MFA, I set some similar intentions and decided to fashion my own ‘do-it-myself’ writing program.

I’ll update my progress and share my experiences on the blog.

The following articles and resources were also useful when thinking about how to structure my own personal program. As ever, I’m late to the party and it turns out there’s an entire book and resource website for others who are interested in doing a DIY MFA!    

Following Pereira’s motto to Write With Focus, Read With Purpose, and Build Your Community, I have structured my DIY MFA according to those three categories too. Like Annie, I will also share information on the classes and conferences I attend on my writing workshop journey. 

“First We Read, Then We Write”

The procrastinator in me is awfully fond of this quote by Emerson. I went through a long period of reading the greats and poring over every single craft book I could get my hands on, never feeling as though I was ready to really start writing. These days I take less of a ‘first I’ll, then I’ll’ approach and try to write more than I read, or make equal time for both. 

“First we eat, then we beget; first we read, then we write.” 

Emerson, ‘The American Scholar’


Craft Books  

Here are a handful of my favorite writing/craft-related works, and you can find a much longer list on my DIY MFA Goodreads shelf.  

  • First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson Jr. 
  • From Where You Dream: the Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler. 
  • How Fiction Works by James Wood. 
  • How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish.  
  • Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form by Madison Smartt Bell.
  • Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin. 
  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. 
  • Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing by Hélène Cixous. 
  • Ways of Seeing by John Berger. 

The Four C’s 

I’m also intrigued by the DIY MFA guide to creating an Essential Reading List

This exercise is for writers who are actively working on a writing project and are trying to figure out how their own work fits within the existing body of literature. The point is that writers who are seriously focusing on a work-in-progress should not be reading at random, but choosing books that serve a specific and concrete function related to their own work. 

Pereira identifies four types of books that should go on your list: 

  1. Competitive Books, or your novel’s closest competition. The purpose in reading books in this category is to know what else is out there and figure out how your work-in-progress compares or can stand out. 
  2. Contextual Books, which are thematically similar to your WIP but not necessarily in the same genre or age group. This is also where you put any research books you will need to read when writing your book. 
  3. Contemporary Books, to maintain awareness of what’s new in the genre you’re writing in. 
  4. Classics, which is a super broad category and will be different for each reader. 

Part of me is skeptical about this approach as I don’t like to think in terms of competition and comparison, or get caught up in what is fashionable or likely to sell. But a part of me is open to exploring this exercise, and I’ll write an update when or if I do. 

Writing 

As a freelance ghostwriter, I write for a living, and I also spend quite a lot of time writing book reviews, personal essays, and other content for this blog.

Meanwhile, I have a chronically neglected novel gathering dust in a metaphorical drawer.

What for now is simply known as “the Post Office book” will therefore be the focus of my DIY MFA.

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison 

I’ve already completed a ton of research, and now it really is a case of dedicating a portion of my day to working on this project that both excites and terrifies me.

While it doesn’t seem like a lot, right now I can commit to one hour a day. That’s honestly about all I can say!  

Classes & Conferences

When time and money allows, I want to take more craft-based classes in the coming year. 

In November 2018, I took a wonderful class with Michelle Ruiz Keil at the Portland Book Festival called Tarot & The Writer. 

And in March 2019, I went to AWP as it was nearby in Portland, Oregon. This was my second AWP–I travelled up to Seattle for it in 2014–and I’ve benefitted from it enormously both times. 

The conference is overwhelming in scope, and organizers need to work on improving accessibility, but I’ve found the panels to be incredibly inspiring, motivating and thought-provoking. 

Given the fact that I was able to stay at my in-laws in Portland and walk over the river to the convention center every morning, the price was really reasonable when I consider all the amazing authors and discussion topics I sat in on. For inexperienced writers who aren’t there to promote their work, I don’t personally think the conference is worth hundreds of dollars in flights, food and accommodation. But if it comes to a city near you at some point, it’s absolutely worth attending and incorporating into your own DIY MFA. 

Community

Ooof. As an introvert living fairly rurally, this is the area I struggle with most. I miss my Portland writing group peoples, and living within walking distance of so many poetry readings and literary events. 

I’m making strides with learning how to drive (yes, I’m almost forty years old and I don’t know how to drive–it’s a long and stupid story), and once I’ve got that down, one of the main things I’m looking forward to is the freedom and flexibility to spend more time in the writing community, both in Portland and down here in the Willamette Valley.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll create some community online. If you’ve completed a traditional MFA or are cobbling together your own DIY MFA, I’d love to hear your thoughts and tips on either.

7 thoughts on “My DIY MFA”

  1. I have read this with great interest, and am hopeful you will be very successful with your ideas. I have often wondered if the MFA was a combination of talent rising to the surface and CONTaCTS that you make/meet while doing it…..does just having an MFA contribute to the attention you will get when you submit?

    1. I have no idea if agents care about whether a writer has an MFA or not; hopefully they’re more interested in the manuscript itself. But I imagine that having an MFA might help with getting connected with an agent in the first place. I think contacts and relationships are one of the most valuable aspects of an MFA, along with the time and space to really immerse yourself in writing. Truthfully, I’d love to do an MFA, but I don’t think it’s 100% necessary to write a novel or get published, so I’m not willing to put myself into massive debt, especially as I have no desire to teach. I think there’s space for all kinds of writers and experience!

  2. I absolutely agree with that, or really, just plain hope that it is true and that the best will rise to the surface no matter what. I live near Warren Wilson College and sometimes wish I could win the lottery and for pete’s sake just go there without any of the drama involved with applications, financial aid, writing samples. Apparently I am neither brave nor
    assured of my worthiness.

    1. I understand your feelings around worthiness and filling out applications. It isn’t an MFA, but a few years ago I audited the Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland, OR. I didn’t feel worthy to apply to be part of the actual workshop, I wasn’t confident my writing samples would be accepted, so I didn’t even apply…. Auditing it was great as I got to attend amazing lectures and seminars, but I didn’t have the experience of working directly with a teacher or sharing my work with other writers…. I wish I’d had the confidence to apply at that stage – it’s still on my list of things to apply to, especially as I live so close by.

  3. As another person who doesn’t drive (and I’m 62!–never had the need for a car, since even in small towns I’ve had adequate transit), I can sympathize with your missing of your writing pals, but I’ve run across a sort of batch of bloggers before (a blogger or two and people they claim to know) who all say they live near the Williamette Valley, so soon you might want to try to explore close to home. Also, at the risk of sounding like a totally asinine and one-sided writer (for not immediately thinking of four great guides to writing by women, such as the fantastic Toni Morrison, who, as you probably heard, sadly passed away at the age of 88 a day or two ago), I have a few more books for writers to recommend. You may already have heard of them and have decided to “shelve” them, but even though I can’t claim to have read any one of them cover to cover, I consult them now and then, or read patches. And when I hit a “purple patch,” I exclaim with delight, since that’s no longer as popular as it used to be. There’s “On Writing Well,” by William Zinsser, for non-fiction (I think he’s at Columbia), “Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read,” by Brooks Landon, definitely a purple patch book, and a book which in its original form was part of “The Great Courses” program, “A Handbook of Rhetorical Terms,” by Richard A. Lanham, for learning the tricks of the trade of writing both good fiction and good non-fiction, and last but not least, “The Prosody Handbook,” which is officially about poetry, of course, but it’s always nice to know what to call those snatches of poetry that sometimes pop up in prose, just for fun. Those last two were guides recommended to me by my supervisor when I did my Ph.D. and he valued them for personal writings as well as professional ones. This is a very long comment, and I hope it’s helpful. Good luck, and I’ll be watching your progress.

    1. I’m partial to a long comment myself, so no worries on that front. I will definitely check out the “Building Great Sentences” book, and you reminded me that I loaned a copy of “On Writing Well” to a friend a few years ago before I’d read it, so I need to read that one too. I love reading books on poetry to help me with my fiction/prose. I picked up a copy of The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice” by Tony Hoagland at a conference in March. It’s been really helpful around things like tone-shifting and the imagination – highly recommend.

      I know one poet living in the Willamette Valley. We talk about writing a bit, but we don’t share our work with each other. I, particularly, feel completely ill-equipped to give feedback on poetry. Reading “Why Poetry” by Matthew Zapruder has given me a little more confidence to understand and speak about poetry, but as much as I love reading poetry I still feel as though I’m never quite “getting” it.

  4. Female authored writing books: Ursula K. LeGuin has several. I may have spelled her name wrong. Mea Culpa. BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert. Absolutely fantastic..like having a cheer leading team behind your writing desk.
    Reading well is the best lesson there is though, read good books by seasoned authors….and, if you are partial to books written by either males or females, shake it up. I love John Updike, Truman Capote, Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Richard Russo, William Styron, John Irving…..etc.

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