Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How to Build Your own MFA Experience

For some unknown reason there is a pervasive (and stubborn) notion that one shouldn't need to be taught how to write. Aside from most every other occupation -- from electrician to obstetrician -- and most every other art and craft, it seems that people think writers should emerge from within themselves, wholly formed, preferably having learned the discipline in complete solitude -- like in the middle of the woods near a pond.

Hey, if that's your thing, there are plenty of writing teachers who would be happy not teach you. And there are a few wooded ponds still in existence.

However, this isn't necessarily what I'd suggest. Instead, I suggest you find people who've been where you are before and ask them questions. Does that mean you have to get an MFA? No. It doesn't. (In fact, below, I'm going to give some instructions on how to build your own MFA experience without actually enrolling in a program.) But you can't ignore the MFA existence.

In fact, let me tell you what I've started telling people at conferences -- small groups of writers who are serious enough about their own work to commit to a conference (though often just starting out): what your competition is up to.

I've said that, in those early years, I could have learned what I did about writing (more or less) without an MFA -- but it would have taken seven years instead of the intensity of two. The MFA allowed me to submerge myself in writing. The professors and the workshop itself are one thing. But what happens during the MFA is that you're surrounded by other people committed to words, language, story. You get to read what writers read; you learn how to read as a writer instead of as a page-turner; you go to readings and Q and A's; you learn a vocabulary; you talk about writing at meals and late into the night; even when you're just swapping tales, you're with other younger writers swapping tales, which is different; you're gathering a chorus of critical voices who dog you and push you; you're working to define your aesthetic in defiance of those around you; you're inspired and toughened by your peers; you have deadlines; you have to articulate your thoughts, your process ... It goes on and on ...

THAT is what your competition is up to...

And it doesn't end there. The PhD students -- after 2-3 years of MFA -- are kicking in another intensive 4-5 years of concentration, effort, time, hours upon hours.

Not everyone can just bop off and get an MFA. Not everyone can even swing the commitment to a low residency. Not everyone wants to.

However, you can -- kind of -- build your own MFA degree, by hand. You can work with some of the best writers in the country, build your own circle of peers, and inject intensity into your writing life with occasional conferences ... It's all out there, if you know where to look. And you can hand-build your own education.

The non-MFA-going group was one I used to work with -- a lot. I had a Dining-room Table Group, a workshop that meet for 6-week cycles, when I wasn't yet affiliated with a university. This was in Delaware and, near the end, we had people who drove in from DC, New Jersey, PA, MD ... We were tight. We worked hard to achieve -- in some small measure -- what was going on elsewhere.

But these groups are rare -- especially ones that start working at a really high level. I suggest that you go to as many as you can find in your community and build relationships with just one or two people from each -- the ones who are serious and committed and who get your work as you get theirs. If you attend a conference, you can meet those one or two people, connect, and commit to swapping work.

And, over the years, I've also paid for editorial help -- as well as have given it. (I no longer do individual tutorials because I teach at FSU and have plenty of students to keep me busy -- and nearly blind!) With Girl Talk, I called up my alma mater UNC-G and asked for their best editor. I worked with Kathy Flann -- now a brilliant published author in her own right who teaches at Goucher College. I've done quid pro quo reading with friends as well as hunting down the best eyes I could find. I had two paid readers for PURE before it went out on the market -- as well as readers at my lit agency -- Sobel Weber and Associates.


But a really wonderful writer, novelist, essayist, poet ... who's published a lot of their own work and who has referrals from other students and who does a little test with you before diving into an entire novel or collection ... is a good thing. In fact, if you think of it more as a tutorial than a means to a publishing end -- more the way you'd view classes you're taking in an MFA program -- the better.

This model is well established in acting. In the old days, you didn't ask an actor, "Where did you get your MFA?" You asked, "Who have you studied with?" If the answer was Stella Adler, well, that meant something.

And then sometimes -- while building your network usually at a distance -- you might need the real thing. You might need to be with other writers, submerged in the writing world, enduring the intensity of workshop and coming up breathless. This is where conferences come in.

I WOULD AVOID CONFERENCES THAT ARE BILLED AS PITCH YOUR MANUSCRIPT TO AGENTS AND EDITORS. (There's a system of submitting that allows you not to leave your house.) But I'd concentrate instead on the ones with the intensive workshop element, the ones where you're learning your craft and meeting others who are serious -- not just about getting published but about this art form. Most of these also invite agents and editors as well. A few that come to mind: Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Sewanee Writers Conference, Writers @ Work, Writers in Paradise, Sanibel Writers Conference. Young adult writers check out Auburn's new YA writers conference. If a teen yourself, check out Auburn's YA conference, as well as Shared Worlds and one put together through SIU-Carbondale.

Of course, if your main goal is to get published, that's now easy. Everyone can self-publish.

But if your goal is to learn your craft, hone your art, and you want to study with someone who is a master in that art form, the mentors, the peers, and the conferences are out there.

Is it cheap? It's not law school but no. However the MFA comes with a lot of sacrifices and costs -- uprooting, rerooting, uprooting again; applying for fellowships; sometimes taking out loans; eating only beans and rice sometimes for a couple of years ... Will this be as intensive as an MFA? Likely not. But if the degree itself doesn't mean much to you -- let's say you're a chemist or a therapist and you like your work -- then you can gear it up or gear it down as you need to.

Okay. So I'm going to include a short list of a few writers -- across genres -- now offering tutorials and manuscript reads. If this were the faculty you were taking classes with the first year of your MFA program, you'd be in a good hands. These are people I trust as patient and rigorous teachers. (I will update this over time.)

CAROLINE LEAVITT is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You, and eight other novels: Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines and Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Various titles were optioned for film, translated into different languages, and condensed in magazines. Her essays, stories and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, New York Magazine, Parenting,The Chicago Tribune, Parents, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. She is an award-winning senior instructor/manuscript consultant at UCLA Writers Program online. carleavitt@hotmail.com

STEVE ALMOND is the author of five books of fiction, most recently the upcoming collection God Bless America, and five books of nonfiction, most notably Candyfreak. He also co-wrote a novel with me, Julianna Baggott, but that should only make me biased against him. He writes social and political commentary and his work is highly anthologized, including in the Best American anthology. sbalmond@earthlink.net

DAVE ELLIS DICKERSON is a regular contributor to NPR's This American Life, and the author of a memoir, House of Cards, about his years as a greeting card writer for Hallmark. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, StoryQuarterly, The Gettysburg Review, and Year's Best Fantasy & Horror. Contact him at wordboydave@gmail.com.

FRANK GIAMPIETRO is a poet whose first collection Begin Anywhere was published by Alice James Books, this was many years before he became an editor at Alice James. He's also published essays and written screenplays and he is fantastic at editing books that deal with the female psyche -- I know this firsthand. He's also worked at The Southern Review. (I'm indebted to his keen eye and you'll find his name in the acknowledgments pages of most of my books, regardless of genre.) Reach him: fwg06@fsu.edu.

And I'm going to tell you about one of my secret weapons, perfect for Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction that really moves: HEATHER WHITAKER. Heather hasn't yet published her first novel, but she is an incredibly skilled editor and patient teacher who writes detailed responses and has great one-on-one sessions. She can be reached at h_whitaker@comcast.net.