Don’t get me wrong, spending two or three years with nothing to do but write sounds like heaven, but there’s another question that comes first.
The real question is: Will I become a writer if I don’t get an MFA?
That’s what I was asking myself 7 years ago when it was time to decide about grad school. Honestly, I had dreamed of getting an MFA for years, but I was nervous about whether or not I actually had the talent to compete. I had been around a lot of aspiring writers in Iowa City and New York, and it felt claustrophobic. I didn’t think I would be able to distinguish myself in a sheltered environment where everyone was concentrated on writing without generating more life experience to write about.
So I broke my own heart, I didn’t go. But I still achieved my goal of selling and publishing literary fiction in print magazines while living abroad.
What did I learn?
There is so much going on in the world that is bigger than myself, I wanted to be a part of it. Grant writing became a huge lesson for me. I helped some South Indian nuns write promotional materials for their project to offer primary education to children in gypsy communities. That’s how I learned the discipline and communication skills that form the basis of success in any form of writing. Plus it was an area where talented writers are genuinely needed.
Later, competing in fiction markets was harder than I ever imagined. Which has actually made it all the more fulfilling, but it has also taught me everything an MFA has to offer. Yet, I was able to recreate it for myself.
Here are the 7 tips for giving yourself the advantages of an MFA on your own time, and your own terms. Possibly even while traveling.
- Create Community
Perhaps the legendary Parisian coffee houses where Joyce, Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald tested their early drafts could be considered the earliest form of an MFA. In most urban areas (including Bogotá) you can create an expat writers group (I have one!) but the most concentrated feedback and development I’ve received has been through online workshops. There you can find companions who are both serious and supportive.
- Immerse yourself in Craft
Nerd out. For about two years my kitchen table was covered in a mess of books, notes and drafts to equal that of a law student studying for the bar. Writing classes and mentorships can be helpful in this process, but it’s more about what your own investment in learning rather than anyone else’s investment in you. No one else is going to make you a writer. Books on craft are essential. There is a vague assumption that the arts should be based on divine inspiration rather than rigorous study. Not true. I challenge you to find a successful artist who is not devoted to the study and practice of craft.
- Savor Every Moment
If you want to publish a book, you have to work on it every day. But do you have to work on it all day every day? No. Many writers get there best stuff on paper during a few concentrated hours. Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” As a mom, full time teacher, blogger and fiction writer, I can definitely appreciate that. You don’t need to section years off for only one thing.
- Take Discipline and Deadlines Seriously
The reason not having enough time is so valuable is because you learn to treasure it. So although you might not need two full years of unfettered artistic experimentation, you do need deadlines and discipline. The fact that I have so much to get done forces me to do more with my life. After all, Leonard Bernstein was a conductor, musician, composer and author. Think of what you can accomplish if you make the most of the time you have.
- Make Career Connections through your Work
For years, I hovered around the outsides of MFAs wondering, what are they talking about in there? You know what it is? Stories. They tell you to write great stories. In the end, all the networking in the world isn’t going to get you published unless you can deliver the goods. Once you have some great drafts, take them to conferences, make friends online, and submit them to magazines. If you’re nervous about your lack of inside connections you can make a name for yourself by submitting to anonymous contests. Make yourself known for your work.
- Pursue Teaching
That’s the trend these days, you get an MFA to write, and then you make your living teaching, and then you complain about it because you don’t have any time left to write. I teach and I love it, and I still find time to write. If you’re going to teach you have to put your heart into it. It’s not just a day job. There are plenty of ways to earn a living and still make time for writing, so it’s important to find the best solution for yourself.
- Give Yourself a Competitive Edge
There are oceans of aspiring writers out there. Atlantic monthly reports that 20,000 people apply for MFA in creative writing every year. Personally I find it encouraging that so many people love literature enough to dedicate themselves to it at that level. But how can you distinguish yourself? How can you make sure you have something unique to offer? For me, the answer to that question wasn’t an advanced degree, it came by finding my path out in the world. However this is a decision each person must make for him or herself.
Returning to the original question, Will I become a writer? No matter what path you choose, ultimately you have to provide the answer. There are always cynics who say, “It’s more likely that you will be hit by a bolt of lightening than become a published writer.” I say, it’s possible, but it’s both more difficult and more fulfilling than you could have imagined at the start.