Some people say earning an MFA is a necessary part of pursuing writing as a profession. The practice and study facilitated by a university will provide significantly better results than any programs of improvement writers might try to accomplish on their own. An MFA proves the seriousness of a developing writer’s intentions and dedication.
Other people think that’s all a bunch of crap. Many legendary writers achieved notoriety without earning a masters’ degree, and the MFA industry exists because it makes a ton of money for universities. Writing skill can’t really be taught.
I just started an MFA program, so you can probably guess where I fall.
During the first residency of my low-residency program, I learned things. Maybe those things aren’t especially unique or profound, but my newfound understanding of them is.
1. There is a taxonomy of people you meet when you become a writer.
We shouldn’t stereotype, but the categories are so gosh-darn apparent. For example, one phylum under the kingdom of Writer is the Late Career Writer, which encompasses the classes of Pre- and Post-Retirement Writers, which are further subdivided into genera including Memoir Writers, Lyric Poets, and Perpetual Students. The Undergrad phylum tends to be a little less complicated, until we start to try to classify young sci-fi and fantasy writers. Modern science would struggle to arrange that family.
I am kingdom Writer, phylum Mid-Career, class Literary Fiction, order Family Man, family Public School Teacher, genus Midwestern, species Bearded. In my MFA class, there is another specimen exactly like me.
2. I am a big sucker for author success stories, even though I hate them.
Twitter and numerous blogs (Michelle Hauck’s, for example) attract a respectable readership by relating the stories of how published authors earned their agents and success. An MFA program inevitably features many of these stories as well, from the staff and the visiting authors. These stories are not meant to be formulas. Instead, these stories are shared so aspiring writers can mine them for advice. If they ever find themselves in some semi-similar situation, they can learn from what others have tried.
But that is really hard. Others’ success stories are like paths through the desert in a sandstorm. No one can follow anyone else’s paths, but many still try to. I still try to. I learned that I need to look up from the sand, focus on the destination, and try to see my own path. In a sandstorm. Good luck.
3. Rejection is really, honestly, actually a part of a writer’s life.
I’ve grappled with this lesson before, but the MFA experience helped solidify it. One of the visiting authors was Jacob Appel, a novelist and short story writer and all-around brilliant human being. He has had over 200 short stories published in prestigious literary journals. In pursuing those publications, he has amassed over 21,000 rejections.
He told this story, which I still can’t wrap my brain around. He entered and won the Boston Review Short Story Contest, an enviable award that involved the magazine flying him to Boston, a big cash prize, and muchos prestige. The story he won the contest with had been rejected seventy-five times previous, including a rejection from… wait for it… the Boston Review.
There is no such thing as too much rejection.
4. Everything I need to know about writing I learned in 9thgrade.
In our workshops, we discussed character, and point of view, and the plot curve. An accomplished travel writer and journalist (Greg Breining) talked about organizing nonfiction, where he cited the five-paragraph essay as a solid organizational strategy.
I’ve taught ninth-graders, and I can assure you, not one of them is ready to publish a novel or write for the Star-Tribune, so I’m not trying to imply that I already know everything, and that the instructors did a poor job. But… we all already know the tenets of good writing. Studying those basics, understanding them more deeply, and learning to manipulate them in increasingly complex and effective ways, that is how we will become better writers.
5. The Secret of Good Writing.
I had hoped on the last night of the residency, our mentors would don robes and, in an ancient ceremony, deliver the secrets of quality writing. But that’s not how this works.
Writing is like playing the guitar. You don’t get better at playing the guitar by taking notes on playing the guitar. You get better by practicing, and for a long time it doesn’t feel like you’re making any progress at all, until hundreds of hours and chords and words and sentences later, you start to look like you know what you’re doing. Few argue that taking guitar classes isn't necessary for getting good at the guitar. I won't make that argument for writing, either.