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 or Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark, but, for now, 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 here 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!
- DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira
- The 1000 Day MFA: a DIY Alternative
- The Art of Being an Autodidact: a Homegrown MFA
- Indie MA in Creative Writing by Andrew Wille
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 my friend Annie, I will also share information on the classes and conferences I attend on my self-curated 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. From now on, I’ll 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.
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.
- Craft In the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Contemporary Books, to maintain awareness of what’s new in the genre you’re writing in.
- 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.
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
Needless to say, the Covid-19 pandemic put a very sharp pin in attending any in-person classes or conferences over the past couple of years. But I’ve been taking more classes than ever before since I gifted myself a subscription to Masterclass.
I’ve particularly enjoyed and benefited from the writing courses and supplementary materials presented by Neil Gaiman, N.K. Jemison, Margaret Atwood and Amy Tan. A year’s subscription is the same cost I’ve paid for some one-day in-person classes and I’ve personally found it quite valuable and worth the money.
In what feels like a hundred years ago (the autumn of 2019 to be exact), I signed up for Literary Arts’ Writing a Novel in Eight Weeks–a bootcamp-style course of mini-lectures, in-class writing, and workshopping. I emphatically did not write a novel, or even a fully-realized chapter, in eight weeks. But I did achieve what I wanted from the course, consciously dedicating time to write and think and be in conversation with some wonderful writers who I now consider friends.
Other highlights from the pre-pandemic days include a wonderful class with Michelle Ruiz Keil at the 2018 Portland Book Festival called Tarot & The Writer. More and more, I’m realizing that many traditional, normative approaches to writing and creativity don’t work for or inspire me. Tarot offers a different lens through which to approach character and story or seeming dead-ends. If this interests you, Jessica Crispin has a book devoted to the topic, Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life.
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. If you struggle with decision-making like me, the conference is sometimes overwhelming in scope, and organizers need to work on improving accessibility for disabled people, 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, or you’re able to stay with a friend like I did in Seattle, it’s absolutely worth attending and incorporating into your own DIY MFA.
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 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.