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.


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)


Go Read 5 YA Books, Then Talk to Me

Just as a preface, this post was inspired by a request from G.P. Merwede, who’s not a #1 fan of YA literature, but wanted to hear more of my thoughts on the matter. I totally respect that there will be a difference of opinions and I want to make clear that don’t like him or anyone else any less for having reading tastes different from mine. To each their own. But, let’s all be informed on the issues, shall we, instead of blindly hating a whole library of books?

There’s be a lot of scorn aimed at YA literature in recent months and years. People have been calling for a YA rating system (because of “profanity”), generalizing all YA literature as dark, depraved, and lurid, and generally believing that YA literature is poorly written, trashy, and unoriginal.

When you were children, didn’t you love books? Didn’t you read age-appropriate books (I’m sure you weren’t picking up tombs of acclaimed “great literature,” such as Anna Karenina or Moby Dick for pleasure reading) that still have a soft place in your heart?

Do you really want to insult your 14-year-old self by saying that everything you read back then, everything you enjoyed, was complete crap?

If you’re an adult and sticking up your nose right now; if, on the tip of your tongue you’re about to say that you didn’t have “refined” tastes yet, you didn’t know what “real literature” was yet, just stop.

Just stop.

The only reason that I can possibly imagine people believe all these bad stereotypes about YA lit is that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Literally, they haven’t read enough YA books (or any at all) to have a well-supported opinion.

As a basic qualifier, let’s say that you don’t have enough information, or haven’t done enough homework to know one damn thing unless you’ve read at least 5 YA books recently. A smattering of both classic favorites and recently published books. Once you’ve read 5 YA books and have done enough of your own research to have a real opinion–rather than parroting somebody else’s statistics–then come talk to me. I’d love to have a real, informed debate about the topic. If you still hate YA literature after reading 5 books, you have my full permission.

In a similar line of thought, if you’re going to leave comments below, you first have to list 5 YA books, ones you’ve honestly read start to finish. It’s like a resume, to prove that you’re qualified to join the discussion.

If you’re counting up books on your fingers and realizing you’re short of the required 5, try out some on the Goodread’s list of the best/most popular YA books, or some of the past winners of the Newbery Award. Also, I’m providing a list of some of my personal favorites. Once you’ve read five, then we’ll talk. Okay?

Book Thief (so well-written, the sentences and sentiments so beautiful . . . you’ll cry. Also, you writers might feel a tiny twinge of despair that you’ll never be able to write such an awesome book. Deep sigh.)

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (if you haven’t read this yet, get a copy Right.Now.)

The Scorpio Races (so so so amazing)

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares

The Language of Flowers


Harry Potter

Perks of Being a Wallflower

Thirteen Reasons Why

Divergent (if you liked The Hunger Games, another recommendation)

The Giver

(PS: All book links will take you to Goodreads, so you can add them to your “to-read” list! Friend me and we can share book recommendations :])