Alphabet Soup: Skip the MFA and Read A-Z Instead

When I was nearing the end of my undergraduate career, a lot of professors started to ask me what I was going to do. More specifically, they assumed I was going to graduate school and would point blank ask what program I was heading off to.

It shocked them when I told them that in fact I was going to a six-week publishing program and then planning to enter the real-world job market. Many of them told me it was a mistake.

It’s been more than a year since I graduated now and a year since I started my job and I still don’t think it was a mistake. I own a condo now. I live in a really neat part of the country, only ten minutes from the US Olympic Rowing practice center, (I just found this out, cool, right?) while most respectable Creative Writing programs are in the sticks of Iowa or Texas (this is a generalization, I know, but it’s kind of true, so let’s move on). When I read articles like this I feel even better in my decision; I graduated debt-free, but would have had to take on loans for an MFA. Sometimes, in the corner of my mind I wish I was still in school so I could write all the time, but then I remember how I actually have more time to write now than I ever did in school, with all those time-consuming general education requirements and exams that, now, seem like such a ridiculous waste (they told me that I could not graduate without taking College Algebra, The Planets, and Exercise Science; they would, they promised, “help me in the future” in some way. I would like to call that bluff. Even as a creative writer, none of those classes even gave me a new experience that would offer even a tid-bit of inspiration for a story).

I understand that MFAs are great, fantastic, life-changing decisions for some people. Annie, for example, (who recently pointed out that it’s national “YA Authors Talk About Higher Education and How It Affects Your Finances” week) loved her MFA experiences and believe they helped her reach her goals (her debut novel is forthcoming from Candlewick).

But, personally? I’m done with learning the theory of craft; I want to see craft in action and practice it over and over again myself.

The best way to do this, I’ve determined, is to read and write A LOT in my own self-designed MFA, of sorts. The poor-mans, free-public-library degree. I’ve always been an avid reader (I’ve read 45 books so far this year, per Goodreads) but this blog post by Joëlle Anthony gave me the idea to really focus my reading time into a study:

After ten years of interest but no book sales, I decided I needed to make some sort of change. I contemplated things for a while and came to the conclusion that many of the successful writers I knew had a lot more education than I did, so I immediately determined that’s what I needed—someone to tell me how to do this writing stuff. After all, my degree was in theatre, not literature or English.

Not surprisingly, all the writers I asked chimed in about the merits of Vermont College’s MFA in writing for kids. I decided that’s what I needed. Unfortunately, what I also needed was the twenty grand to make it happen. When I realized the money wasn’t going to miraculously show up in my savings account, I knew I’d have to move on to Plan B: I’d get all those Vermont College graduates to simply tell me what they learned and it would be almost like going myself.

Right?

Yeah…not so much.

However, when I asked for more information about the program, one writer answered me in specifics that changed my life. She told me about the coursework, which sounded interesting, and the guest writers who came in to lecture, which I really wanted to hear, but then she offhandedly mentioned that they also “require participants to read 200 books in their genre.”

Read a lot of books? That’s it? That’s all I had to do? I loved to read!

I could do that.

For free!

So, this is the plan, for now. Let’s see how far it gets me.

(Image: State Library and Archives of Florida, Creative Commons)

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30 thoughts on “Alphabet Soup: Skip the MFA and Read A-Z Instead

  1. Love the post. I am so with you on this. I am an avid book reader as well, so trying to get what I need from reading lots and writing lots. I’m encouraged to know there are numerous writers in the world who progressed well with their writing without an MFA. If someone chooses to go that route then well and good, but from everything I’ve read I don’t view it as an essential.

    • Glad to know I’m not alone! I think the MFA is really great if you need outside help and outside deadlines to get those pages written (if the self-imposed ones don’t work). As much as it would be nice to be surrounded by other writers and to be in that constantly-creative environment, I don’t think I need it.

  2. Hi Hannah,

    We forget that before college became mass marketed and big real estate business, there were folks who did not go to college or grad school writing great novels or speeches or columns.

    Abraham Lincoln taught himself English Grammar. William Shakespeare didn’t go to college either.

    I agree, read, write and get critiques on what you write from all sorts of people. That’s how I really learned how to write.

    Toughening the writer’s skin will do more for good writing than any college degree.

    Julie

  3. I’m a big believer in learning by doing. I spent upward of $40,000 (about half of it in student loans) to get my technologist degree, and while it DID help me get a job and it IS legally required for me to have the proper training to do his kind of job, I can genuinely say that I learned nothing until I was actually DOING the job.
    It’s the same with writing, I’ve found. Yes you have to have an understanding of language and grammar and all that basic stuff, but you’ll never really learn how to write without experiencing it first-hand. And just like an apprentice technologist can learn from watching his or her elders in the field, so too can a writer learn from THEIR elders…in other words, reading successful published novels.

    So in conclusion, enjoy reading, and keep writing! :)

    • Agreed! I think that’s the largest problem with college education, right now. There were no opportunities to learn about the day-to-day activities of publishing when I went to school (which is why I had to go to the post-graduate NYU publishing course). I learned SO MUCH and am still learning so much at my job, but I never would have had the opportunity had they not taken “a bet on me” and been impressed by my college accomplishments.

      Enjoy reading and keep writing to you as well :]

      • Yes! When I had my annual review with our building principal, under my goals, he listed something or other about “staying current with literature trends…” and he said, “in other words, READ” :)

  4. This was heartening. I don’t have an MFA, either. It’s something I think about from time to time, both for the experience and because “everyone else” has one. The latter has become less true now that’s I’ve found a vein of high-quality literary publications whose contributors (judging from the bios) are often doing other things in their careers.

    Because an MFA would mainly be for personal fulfillment (I’m not going to get onto the academic track, in other words), the money would be painful/impossible to spend.

    • Exactly how I feel. I’d like to get my MFA for personal reasons–and just because it would be a luxury to be in that creative environment, surrounded by other writers all the time–but I can’t afford that luxury, especially because it doesn’t offer any return other than fulfillment. It’s not cost effective.

  5. I’m a published author with no MFA. It’s not necessary. But I do read extensively in my genre, and that is absolutely a great way to learn what you need to know.

    • It’s so important! And it’s important to keep updated on what’s being published; to read a slew of new books every year and understand the way each genre is developing. I feel like school always has us read older books, which are great, but which aren’t sufficient. Even a MFA requires some serious personal reading time to supplement it.

  6. I do believe in education, but don’t think institutions are always the best way to get that education. I won’t even go into how our schools fail our children–nope, I won’t do it.

    I’ve always loved reading and have learned more through my own reading/research than I’ve ever learned in a classroom environment. Plus, the things I learn on my own are things I WANTED to learn and had an interest in. The things learned in school more often than not didn’t interest me and were pushed out of my mind shortly after learning them (to make room for the things I did want to know about).

    Bravo for this post! And thank you!

    • I really enjoyed getting my BA, and I feel I learned a lot and was exposed to a lot that I wouldn’t have been able to do myself in “independent study” if I never went away to college. That said, I feel like it’s time to focus my interests and only learn more about what I’m interested in; I don’t need that broad, general education anymore.

      • For example, I probably never would have picked up an interest in reading and writing memoir, except the school required me to take a class in writing creative non-fiction. I love it now and I learned so much about the craft of memoir writing! If I had never gone away to school for my bachelors, I probably would have pigeon-holed myself as a writer.

  7. Excellent post! I especially like your approach to the “self-designed MFA.” Honestly, a big part of the MFA is getting the work done and using your time wisely. If you’re motivated, you can do that in any setting with a good stack of library books. So glad to see this discussion going on in such a thoughtful way.

    • In college, one of my favorite creative writing professors of all time did an independent study with me. I had to read one middle grade book and write ten new pages of my own book, due every two weeks. At the end of the semester I had a full novel (though it was extremely short and fast-paced in places) and my professor told me how impressed she was. She had done several independent studies with other writing students before, but they had never actually succeeded in writing a whole book, or writing the required number of pages. They always had a excuse. (The idea of not fulfilling the class requirement never even occurred to me. I had to write it all. End of story.) She told me that, maybe, I wouldn’t need an MFA since, as you said, MFAs give people deadlines and encouragement and time-management to get all that writing done. I am so glad such lovely wonderful programs exist for those who need them (who knows! Some day, writing might become more difficult for me and I’ll need that environment, and maybe I’ll do an MFA then!) but for now I don’t need the MFA to help me along.

      One thing my self-designed MFA sorely lacks that I’m sure you benefited from, though, was peers and workshops and critiques. I’m sure your work ends up becoming more polished, your writing stronger, your scenes tighter. I desperately need to find a local writing group to add onto my self-designed MFA!!

  8. Your post reflects wisdom, confirmed by experience … and the laudable courage to challenge conventional thinking. Reading (good books) feeds your soul; writing stretches and sharpens your wit.

    • Of course! To each their own, I say. The deadlines and guidance and nurturing an MFA offers is awesome. I think it depends how you feel as a writer when your close to graduation. But yes, definitely, unless you intend to become a creative writing professor, the MFA is not necessary.

  9. Great post. Mark Danielewski is a famous example of someone who got rejected from so many MFA programs and still made a great living as a writer (even though I’m not crazy about him, he’s wildly popular). I don’t believe MFAs are necessary if you devote yourself to your writing. They are good for making connections, but, hell, there’s tons of ways you can do that, including submitting good writing to lots of places. Good luck with your 200 books endeavor! Hope you’ll be posting about it.

    • Agreed, MFAs are definitely not necessary. Another thing is that, generally, MFAs won’t let students focus upon “genre” writing, like SciFi, Romance, and historical fiction. There are so many forms of writing to learn and practice outside of the classroom.

      Thanks for the luck! I’m only 47 books into my goal for 70 this year, so I’m thinking this 200 book goal might take a bit longer than two years. It’s hard to find the time!!

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