The Self-Taught MFA: Novel Idea or Fairy Tale, Part 2

  I'm astounded that some crook has not had the idea of opening a writing school.                                  

                                                                                          Poet and Pugilist Arthur Cravan, 1914

Last month, we spoke about the pros and cons of getting an MFA. Every writer wants to advance both technically and professionally. However, obtaining a formal degree is far from the only option. Now more than ever, there exist a plethora of ways you can learn technique, read great authors, workshop and even meet industry professionals, all on your own.

If it's that easy, why wouldn't everyone do it? you ask. (Or maybe you didn't ask, but to move the article along, let's pretend you did.)

Fact is, easy it's not. When you go it alone, everything is on you. You must decide what to study, who to read, with whom to workshop (if you do at all) and how to get your work in front of the people who can take it to the next level. On the other hand, these things are all included for you in an MFA. If going the degree route is, like I said last month, comparable to Club Med, then the Self-Taught MFA is akin to backpacking through a new country with nothing but a map and the faith that you, and not some ready-made program, can help you reach your potential as a writer.

Now, let's talk about that map.

1. Begin at the End: What Will Your Final Assignment Be?

Most MFA programs require their students to turn in a book-length work as their final project, or thesis. While the two or three years required to finish a program are not all spent on writing said thesis, many of the assignments lead to this goal: short pieces describing the main characters, exercises exploring such topics as narrative arc and theme, deadlines for completing sections of your book by a certain date. These thesis-focused assignments tend to ramp up in the program's final year.
As a "do-it-yourselfer", your first task would be to decide how long your self-taught MFA is going to take and then work backwards from there. 5 years part-time? A 12 month intensive? If you could get your intrepid little hands on an MFA syllabus, either from a friend, online, or a writing program directly, that could serve as a handy guide.

2. The Do It Yourself Reading List

By necessity, reading lists for an MFA program tend to be broad. Often so much so that you end up doing a lot of close reading, and consequent discussions, projects etc. of work that has nothing to do with the type you want to write.
However, if left to their own devices, a lot of writers would rarely venture from their literary comfort zones. In order to get the most from your self-assigned reading, your list should include the following:
  • A smattering of well-respected books on technique and theory. Stephen King's On Writing and Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird spring to mind.        
  • A selection of books you've always meant to read but have never gotten around to. If you're like me, you probably already own a lot of these.
  • Works you wouldn't ordinarily read: These could include foreign authors, classics and works in another genre, like poetry and short stories. Choose carefully and you could find material that will help your work develop in new and unexpected ways.

3. The A La Carte Method of Formal Classes

Just because you're not in a graduate program doesn't mean you have to eschew the classroom altogether. Writing classes can be taken at universities, adult learning centers, online and even in private homes. The classes you choose could range from all levels to more specific and nuanced areas you want to focus on. Choose your classes wisely and this could be a far more economical and efficient way of formal study. A little self-knowledge goes a long way here. Ask yourself what your weakest points in writing are, and then seek out classes with that focus.
One thing a lot of MFA programs neglect is the marketing aspect that, these days, is like a second job to any writer who wants to get ahead. Of course, readin' and writin' should be every do-it-yourselfers primary focus. But be sure to integrate some study of the business end of things. You don't want to find yourself some years down the line with a completed draft and no idea what to do next.

4. When to Workshop, When to Stop.

As a DIY'er, there's no need to go it alone. Workshopping is the backbone of the MFA process. Some things to keep in mind, though:
  • Steady Does it: When working on a long project, the best group will probably be one with regular members who meet at regular times, who know your work and are invested in watching it grow. This as opposed to a less formal drop-in group or online chat forums.
  • Find Your People: No group's going to love everything you write but they should at least "get" what your write. If that roomful of hipsters just don't feel your WWII memoir, or your graphic novel is drawing blank stares all around, keep looking for a group where you fit in, or better yet—start your own.
  • Focus on the Focused: When on a course of self-study, your goal is the same as that of writers in a grad program—to become as good a writer as possible and to reach as many readers as possible. However, some groups outside academia are heavy with members who write as a hobby or outlet and whose needs in a group may differ vastly from yours. You may find you learn more from writers who share your goals.

5. Agents and Where to Find Them

A big draw for a lot of MFA programs is the chance to show one's work to agents and other industry pros. However, that's possible on the "outside" as well. I found my own agent at the second conference I ever went to, after months of sending out queries and partials and being wildly grateful when my rejection letters spelled my name right. Face-to-face "pitch sessions" give agents a chance to put a face to a name and see you as a "real" person (and vice versa). Agents also teach classes and intensives. The trick is to concentrate on the agents that are right for where you are in your career and having the work you show be in as polished a state as possible. There are loads of books and seminars that can aid you on your search for an agent, and some of these should be part of your syllabus.

6. And Finally, the One Lesson EVERY Writer Must Teach Themselves:

First, the good news: every writer's got a story to tell.
Now the bad: in our highly literate, touchy-feely times, there are so many people trying to tell their story, that no one seems to be listening to YOURS! There are so many people blogging, vlogging, self-publishing, eBooking, indie publishing, mainstream publishing, expounding on forums, social media and the like. It reminds me of those open mikes where every single person in the audience is there for the sole purpose of getting up to read their stuff. When you finally make it to the stage, all you see is a bunch of heads bent over their own work, not listening, just waiting their turn.
The one lesson that very few writing programs or books or teachers will tell you about is indifference. Most people won't care that you write. There's a good chance that when you do sign with an agent, release a book or win a prestigious contest, your life won't change terribly much. The paparazzi won't stalk you, no one will circulate that sex tape of you (No, not even THAT one), and you'll find that generating and sustaining interest in your writing is more challenging than the writing itself.
But one day, you could write something that changes everything: everybody talks about it, quotes it, analyzes it. You get film offers, a cult following, and suddenly, people want to know what else you've done, what you're going to do next...
Most likely, you will have to do a lot of good work for not very many results for a long, long time before you get to this place. And that's the takeaway from the Lesson of Indifference; keep writing, keep improving, keep getting your work out there, even when it seems the world will never notice.
That way, you'll be prepared for the day the world just might.


Naturi Thomas-Millard

Column by Naturi Thomas-Millard

Naturi is the author of How to Die in Paris: A Memoir (2011, Seal Press/Perseus Books) She's published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in magazines such as Barrow St. and Children, Churches and Daddies. At Sherri Rosen Publicity Int'l, she works as an editor and book doctor. Originally from NYC, she now lives in a village in England which appears to have more sheep than people. This will make starting a book club slightly challenging.

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L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami October 9, 2014 - 6:30pm

Not so sure about on writing. I think I learned more on how to not be over-descriptive from him than anything else.

I have no objections to anything else.

Anyone who seriously expects fame from writing, needs to seriously consider their motives for writing to begin with. But that's just me.

TheScrivener's picture
TheScrivener from Seattle is reading short stories October 10, 2014 - 9:14am

Seemingly so obvious, and yet were it not for the article I might have neglected this aspect of my self taught 'writer's' education: Reading books you would not otherwise read were they not assignments.  One of the most liberating things about leaving high school was not being forced to read A Seperate Piece or A Day No Pigs Would Die and their ilk anymore. Hello Frisch, Sartre and Robert Jordan.  haha.  Anyway, this article was very useful for pushing me toward being a little more systematic in my attempt to be A WRITER.  (I don't think I will ever stop rolling my eyes when I say that---perhaps acting serious will make me serious.)

underpurplemoon's picture
underpurplemoon from PDX October 12, 2014 - 9:50am

I enjoyed both your articles of The Self-Taught MFA. I was initially wait-listed for a low-residency one in Culver City and I got in. Went for one 10-day residency and it was heaven. Unfortunately, when I got back to my normal life, and did my online work, real work had become more overwhelming and I mournfully said goodbye to my awesome MFA program. I was so raw back then, so new, it was rare that I got in. I would have graduated last year, but I guess I've learned just as much by being in the Litreactor community. Again, work got too much and I thought I'd never get a chance to set foot in here, but I'm back. Litreactor is another good alternative to MFA programs. 

There was a Wordstock gathering and it was cool to meet with everyone. Not sure if Litreactor does that anymore, but it was really cool.