The DIY MFA
First off, this post is not about creative writing MFAs, yay or nay.
My guess? Some creative writing MFA programs are probably wonderful, with supportive classmates and professors and the perfect environment where young (or not so young) writers make amazing progress on their craft and start finding their voice. Some are probably horrible, with lots of backstabbing, in-crowd cliques who love nothing more than to rip the writing of other students to shreds and/or vain, narcissitic professors who demand adoration, mimicry and absolute devotion–or else. Most programs are probably somewhere in between.
One thing I will say: You shouldn’t enroll in a creative writing MFA program if it will put you massively in debt, especially since your chances at making a decent living (or any living at all) writing (literary) fiction are incredibly slim.
As for me, I applied for two MFA programs when I first got serious about writing and didn’t get into either one of them. I planned to regroup and apply to other schools at a later date, but then life got in the way and it soon became clear that I just didn’t have room for an MFA program, especially since I didn’t want to leave Europe and go back to the US (yes, low-residency creative writing programs did spring up at some point, but they’re still pricey and with travel expenses on top of that).
Since I’m still here in the fiction writing trenches years later, not getting an MFA obviously didn’t stop me from doing what I love. Still, writing is a craft and not something that happens off in an ivory tower of the self-indulgent genius (what a load of crap that myth is!). I suppose what I’ve been doing all these years could be defined as a DIY MFA.
Here are its important features.
Get a writer’s group (and a thicker skin)
Ok, this first one has been said a lot, I’m sure, but that’s because it’s essential. However, writer’s groups can definitely take on different forms and serve different purposes. When I first started writing seriously, I found it helpful to be in a group where we also did writing exercises to practice different aspects of craft; now I’m much more interested in exclusively workshopping pieces we’re currently working on.
The group I’ve been in now for around four years, made up of six fabulous ladies including myself, has truly been a god send. We meet twice at month, taking turns meeting at our various apartments spread throughout Berlin (though it’s been weekly Zoom meetings instead since Covid-19), and workshop novel scenes or short stories from two to three members and sometimes spontaneously talk about elements of craft.
So what makes up a good writing group? In my opinion, one made up of writers who are dedicated to supporting each other’s work (I’ve been in many writing groups that fizzled out because this wasn’t really the case) and offering honest and constructive criticism that is still kind and respectful.
In other words, don’t be too nice, but make sure you don’t say things that will have the other members of the group excusing themselves to go cry alone in the bathroom.
That said, it is also important to let in the criticism you receive (and work on getting a thicker skin if you don’t have one). No matter how fantastic a writer you are, you are always going to sometimes be blind to the flaws in your work or how they can be improved. In many ways being either overly sensitive and/or defensive about criticism is not really in your best interest.
Sure, people might sometimes offer criticism which makes it clear they just don’t get what you’re trying to do, but you can definitely learn to filter those kinds of comments out. However, if ten people tell you the motivation of your main character isn’t clear, it’s extremely likely they are on to something, so be open to what they have to say.
Take advantage of online offers
Ah yes, the Internet. Where oh where would we be without it? Since my local writer’s group would have been cancelled for months and months without Zoom and co., I love it even more.
There are also many fabulous DIY MFA classes to take on the Internet itself. I took the online Writing a Novel course from the Faber Academy last year and it was really excellent (by the way, British creative writing programs and courses tend to be less expensive than their American counterparts, so they’re definitely worth checking out).
The course was very well organized, with suggested reading and craft topics covered each month, plus a 2000 word submission from your novel which was critiqued by another writer in the group (I also critiqued someone else in return). Having a deadline like this was extremely helpful in terms of motivation. I definitely get neurotic about meeting deadlines and since I had to submit 2000 words a month (ok, not really, you technically are allowed to skip) I always made sure it happened.
No one else on the course was writing literary fiction (two were writing mysteries/thrillers and the rest were writing YA science fiction), which was interesting for me.
Literary writers tend to get snooty about genre fiction, which I personally find silly. Although genre fiction does perhaps lean more heavily on plot than character development (although I wouldn’t say that was the case for the other writers in the course) and generally works within an established genre framework, otherwise genre writers are dealing with the same craft element literary writers are: setting, world building (even more crucial for SciFi/fantasy folks), pacing, etc.
And let’s be honest now: a literary fiction novel or short story that only focuses on the beauty of the language/character, but has little to no plot? Snoresville. Each type of fiction writing has its virtues and typical shortcomings, and which one you prefer really is just a matter of personal taste.
That said, my heart still does belong to literary (speculative) fiction.
Another great online educational source more focused on literary fiction is One Story. I absolutely love the course offerings they have there, not to mention the generous support offered by the One Story staff each time. I’ve take around eight or nine courses there over the years, on everything from dialogue to editing to effectively creating a short story collection.
I also joined several online writing groups I got in contact with over One Story courses. Although they ended up being the fizzling out kinds, I’m sure it wouldn’t have to be that case. Either way, the courses are wonderfully interactive, with lots of great forums to meet people and exchange thoughts and tips.
Read like a madman/madwoman
Ok, so this is also standard advice: to get better at writing, you need to read more. However, I think this can be more clearly defined.
Yes, you should definitely read the kind of books you love to read and/or want to write yourself–let’s not get too overly Protestant about this, reading is and should always remain an absolute pleasure–but you should also definitely strive to read outside of your comfort zone.
Pick up a book you don’t think you’ll like and give it a try. Did you end up liking it more than you thought you would? Great. Hated it just like you knew you would? Also great. Now ask yourself why this was the case. Was there something “wrong” with the writing, or was your dislike just a matter of taste? If certain things weren't working, why weren’t they working? How could the novel/story be improved?
Learning to think analytically about writing you both like and don’t like can definitely strengthen your critical eye concerning your own work as well.
One thing I haven’t heard mentioned as often is how important it is to read work that isn’t quite there yet and/or is still deeply flawed, an aspect which definitely belongs in an DIY MFA.
I’ve workshopped around seven different stories through Sixfold (I also had my first publication in this magazine) and I always found reading other people’s (often flawed) work extremely useful.
If you participate in a Sixfold issue, you read six stories in three rounds, giving feedback each time and ranking the stories from 1 (“best”) to 6 (“worst”).
By reading so many short stories, it became clear to me that there is almost a universal tendency to add too much padding and explaining to the first part of a short story instead of getting into the action. Sure, this is also standard short story writing advice, but seeing again and again what happens if you don’t get into the action right away really made me understand how important this advice actually is.
That said, the last few times I participated my story got eliminated in the first round, which means I only got feedback from six people. Both times the feedback was either mean and not helpful (I don’t get it. Why does this dog just talk in the story like it’s a dumb human and who’s this Michael guy the reader doesn’t care about? Sorry, this story just doesn’t work for me.) or too nice and not helpful (Great story! I enjoyed it all the way to the end!), so I don’t think I’ll be participating again.
Still, I definitely do suggest giving it a whirl once or twice. If your short story is among the top 15 ranking wise you’ll get published, and if it’s number one you’ll even get a thousand bucks. You’ll also see what kinds of stories people are writing, which is interesting (yes, there is definitely a pattern. The last round I read at least three stories about having to reluctantly sell a summer home.).
As far as reading goes, for your DIY creative writing MFA, books on craft are also super helpful for sure. I’ve read/worked with a lot of them over the years and my favorites include Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin, The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner, On Writing by Stephen King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and any of the books by Noah Lukeman.
(p.s. Don’t actually buy them on Amazon. I’m pretty sure Jeff Bezos has enough dough without taking more of ours. Support your independent bookstores!)
Happy writing and DIY MFAing, everyone–keep at it!