How to Get an MFA in Five Steps

This week, GalleyCat promoted New York Writers Workshop’s free ebook of Portable MFA in Creative Writing. While I have nothing against the existence of this book as a writing guide (the people over at the New York Writers Workshop are successful, well-known, and respected in their fields), I was skeptical of it proclaiming to give writers the MFA experience. A GED does not have the same weight as a high school diploma, and a certificate from the University of Phoenix is not a college education. So how could a free ebook come close to substituting a Masters degree? [Note: I don’t think the writers of this book believe it can either. It’s just a catchy title. But, it’s one that implies “an MFA is too expensive, so buy this book instead.”]

I’ll be the first to admit that an MFA in creative writing is a luxury degree. No one needs it. That doesn’t mean that, even after my accumulated $60,000 debt, I regret getting one. I’d recommend an MFA program to anyone who’s serious about writing, but I can see why some might not think it’s worth the price of admission. The good news is there are ways to cut costs and achieve (relatively) the same results. You just need to be willing to put in the work, and realize it’s not going to come from one source or happen overnight.

So here goes – my MFA in Five (Not-Always-Easy) Steps:

1. Buy the following books:
On Writing by Stephen King
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass

There are a million writing guides all proclaiming to be the only one you need. Do you ever only need one book though? Besides, if you found this blog you’re already savvy enough to know the internet is full of free advice that comes directly from agents, editors, and published authors. The three books I mentioned, however, are what I consider “the best” of many, many books on writing. You want to pick them up, trust me. And hey, buy the Portable MFA while you’re at it (or download it for free!) because it sounds like they have some good people over there. (I realize that sounds sarcastic, but I promise I’m being sincere!)

2. Read Literary Fiction.
Rarely will you find an MFA program that teaches genre fiction, and the reason is not because it’s “looked down upon.” My former colleague Nathan Bransford summed up what he called “the reverse snobbery” of literary fiction quite nicely (here), and I could not agree more. There seems to have been a backlash against literary fiction – that it’s too high brow, that they want something “real,” and that it’s not accessible. The thing is, sometimes those things are true and sometimes none of those things are true. Like with every genre, the stereotypes attached to it give it a bad name.

“Accessible” literary fiction like Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jonathan Lethem are what I tend to fall back on when I’m able to read for fun. We all have our favorite genres. But if you’re trying to give yourself an MFA-style education, you need to push yourself. That’s why they teach the uber-literary in MFA programs. Reading the same book you’d read while commuting or at the beach is not going to help you learn anything you don’t already know. So pick up something you’d never buy otherwise. Pynchon maybe? Nabokov that’s not Lolita? Personally, I’d recommend some post-modern Barthelme. Sometimes you need to read something that will make you scratch your head, stretch your mind, and remind yourself that you’re a scholar.

3. Go to readings at your local bookstore.
This is something all the advice in the world can’t replicate. Seeing established authors in person reading aloud from their published work. Then, if you’re lucky, speaking to them – whether in a Q&A session or during a quick handshake before they sign your book. Witness what writing is when it’s off the page.

4. Give yourself “in class” assignments.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and write as many words as you can. It doesn’t matter what the topic is or even that they make sense as a cohesive idea. Just move your pen. Or type – whatever your preference. The goal isn’t to develop a story, but just to see where your mind takes you.

Another favorite in-class assignment of mine was to take a famous writer, study their sentence structure, and then try to replicate it. You’d be amazed at how hard this is. Pick literary writers, or the classics, for this task. Stretch your limits and go beyond your comfort zone. I once had to mimic Proust and produced a long, lyrical sentence about Wal-Mart. Like with the previous assignment, the importance isn’t placed on what you write, but rather how you’re writing it. 

(Although once you deem yourself ready to graduate and want to focus on publishing your work, I recommend taking authors within your genre and studying their structures. While it won’t be as “artful,” it’s a good way to learn what they’re doing, how you’d compete, and what you’d add to the market.)

5. Join a writer’s group or take a creative writing class at a local college.
Again, physically being near other writers is something you can’t find in a book. The most important aspects of an education is experiencing, learning-by-doing, and meeting people. Specifically, meeting strangers. Cheat on your beta readers and workshop your manuscript with people you don’t know, and maybe aren’t even sure you can trust. Sit uncomfortably and optimistically while your classmates tell you every single thing that is wrong with your work directly to your face. It’s wonderful and horrifying and makes you a stronger person. Their word isn’t bond, but how you interpret their advice will make you a smarter, more prepared writer.

This Five-Step Program will not, and should not, take less than one year to complete. Diplomas will be awarded upon graduation, though I cannot guarantee they won’t just be photos of corgis in party hats.

Good forth and learn, you bright young things!

Read. Prey. Exploit.

By now you have probably heard of the ghastly “James Frey Fiction Factory” news that broke over the weekend. In case you were away, this paragraph from the NY Magazine article sums it up:

“This is the essence of the terms being offered by Frey’s company Full Fathom Five: In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission.”

Gross, right? The always brilliant Maureen Johnson had an equally brilliant blog post about it as well.

Writers, if this is not evidence of the importance of agents, I don’t know what is. Desperation to get published is never an excuse to settle for anything less than what you deserve. What’s more, Mr. Frey is going into my old stomping grounds – the MFA classroom – to prey on his victims. What strikes me as odd about this is that the average MFA candidate is not taught “high concept,” or even knows what it means, and they usually scoff at genre fiction, but it seems as if that is all James is looking for.

The desire to get published and work with “super famous author” can make a person compromise their style, and I am not above advocating “commercializing” a novel for the sake of publication. But! You should never, ever compromise your ideals – whether it’s in your writing or in your own self-worth. You are worth more than $250. Much, much more.

Speaking from an industry professional’s point of view, this is appalling on many levels. It is an agent’s job to protect the writer from contracts like this. Not only would the writer not get paid nearly enough for their work, but Frey makes it so his company can decide not to pay you at all. Add in a little stripping of rights, final say, and ability to protest and you have a nicely packaged fascist agreement. Writers, this is not the future of publishing. And while I know all of my loyal readers are too smart to fall for a contract like Frey’s, there are others out there who hide behind larger advances and prey on the un-agented, feasting on their unprotected, and often uninformed, flesh.

My anger toward this is not motivated by selfishness. Yes, the very essence of my job is being tossed aside and put into question by this “other option,” but there’s a reason agents become agents. And it’s not fame or fortune, trust me. It’s also not to force writers into a bureaucracy and reap so-called benefits from them, like some writers (usually the rejected ones) sometimes believe. We get into this business because we love books and writers and want to see them succeed. And yes, the more money you make, the more money we make. This is our job, after all. While I can’t speak for all agents, I’ll say that a huge commission check is just an added bonus. Most of us do this because we honestly love it. We’re your advocates and protectors who speak on your behalf because too many people like Frey exist.

Now, there’s that other side of me. The one who is now going to speak as an MFA graduate. What makes me afraid of this Fiction Factory is that I know how many people will be tempted to take Frey up on his offer of doom. I have many opinions about my MFA, not all of them positive and most of which having to due with it being an expensive and useless degree. But, I entered a “NY literary scene” I was desperate to be a part of and it did, truly, make me a better writer.

That said, all I “learned” at The New School was how to be a better writer. My writing seminars and literature courses only had one educational motive – craft, craft, craft. No one ever bothered to prepare us for actual publication, or even how to go about getting an agent. If I wasn’t already interning at an agency at the time, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about the actual logistics of getting published. In fact, hardly anyone mentioned the word “published” at all, but we were all forced to attend a three-week seminar on teaching. I guess for when we all failed and needed a fall-back career. No one went to this seminar after the first meeting, myself included.

Writers, as followers of blogs you know this, but as a reminder: getting published is not just (finally!) seeing your book in print. It’s, ideally, your new career, and like any job, you are guaranteed protection for your contributions to “the company.” We’re like your boss, but instead of enforcing a dress code or making you attend awkward office parties, we just pay you. While it’s a fun and rewarding business, it’s also a business, and to think otherwise is irresponsible. This is one of my biggest problems with MFA programs. Writing for the sake of writing is all well and good, but if you want to turn it into a career, writing students are discouraged more than encouraged, and are rarely, if ever, given the facts.

If all you want is to just see your book in print, then self-publishing or Frey-style rip-offs probably would suit you just fine. But if you want to be an author, then hard work, perseverance, and having “the system” give you your due is what will make you successful. The easy way out is very tempting, especially in a business that makes you wait for every little thing, but giving in to a Frey contract is against your best interest and just plain heartbreaking for those of us who know better. You deserve more, writers.

Confessions of a (Former?) Snob

A few months ago, my sister asked if I’d be interested in a guy who read Tom Robbins. I told her I hadn’t really thought about it before (truth). Then I thought (to myself), what does that even mean? Are Tom Robbins fans certain types of people, the way Tucker Max boys are? I didn’t think so. Then I thought that maybe she was asking me about Tom Robbins because, simply, he’s popular. This, to me, was a sad thought.

I admit there was a period in my life where I judged people based on the type of music they listened to and genres of books they read. I’m happy to report that these days of complete and utter superficiality are now behind me. (Well, for the most part: I’m still pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to marry someone who listens to Nickelback. But that’s just common sense.)

As far as books are concerned though, basically I’m just happy if the person reads at all. You only read Carl Hiaasen? Fine by me. Dante in Latin? Excellent. Candace Bushnell fan? Little weird, but sure, I’ll take it. And yet. There was a time when I was a snob, and this time wasn’t too long ago. Studying creative writing during Da Vinci mania and James Frey controversy made it easy to turn up my nose at those who read mere commercial fiction. Mostly because everyone around me was turning up their noses too. Just the word – commercial – I mean, ugh. Right? The word was dirty to my liberal arts educated writing community.

Then I made the jump to an even more exclusive literary circle – the MFA program. In New York City. In Greenwich Village. I was doomed.

I was recently out to dinner with two other former MFAers (one from my alma mater, The New School; the other from Sarah Lawrence). We, of course, had a long chat about books and agreed that our MFAs have ruined us, but possibly in a good way. Explanation:

You see, in writing programs, the last thing writers are ever taught is how to get published. It’s all about craft, craft, craft. And in order to hone that skill, we must read, read, read. But again, we are not told to read New York Times bestsellers. We are told to read the few masterpieces of literary fiction that publishers were kind enough to took a chance on. Most of these authors are dead. Or insane. Or reclusive. Or have been long since considered “classic” or “genius,” two titles that the average student will probably not be able to attain upon graduation.

Literary fiction remains a go-to choice for when I read for fun (that is, when I have time for such things!). However, the David Foster Wallaces, Italo Calvinos, Marcel Prousts, and the Thomas Pynchons are hardly beach reading. Yet writers in MFA programs are told that this is the only form of writing worth doing. To me, there is accessible literary fiction (Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon…) and there’s the authors I mentioned I above (let’s call them the Uberliterary).

The Uberliterary, to me, are the writing equivalent of fashion designers. There are those who design clothes you buy at the Gap and there are those who design clothes strictly for the runway. Walking art projects made by designers for designers, saying “looky what I can do!” There is nothing wrong with this, by the way. But sadly, since I’m not in the fashion club, it all just looks like a mess to me. I am, however, in the literary club. So when the Uberliteraries write for other writers, I smile and wink back.

So, why has my MFA “ruined” me, as I said? Well, remember I also said “in a good way.” I can be as snobby as I want because I was practically trained to be. Yet, I couldn’t choose not to be pretentious if I didn’t have this training. (Make sense?) Working in publishing has de-MFAed me. Not only because high concept literary fiction isn’t exactly a moneymaker, but because it’s surrounded me with book lovers who love the written word. No matter what it is. So, I left my snobbery at the door and didn’t look back. I can choose to pick it up again, but why would I want to?

What do you all think? Any former or current writing students care to share your experiences?

Inspiration & Motivation

To my fellow writers… 

Yes, I say “fellow” because I am in the process of reclaiming my roots in creative writing. I’ve been so busy thinking my MFA was useless and not worth the debt, that I haven’t thought about actually using it. While my go-to style is personal essay, I’ve been trying my hand at (gulp!) fiction. It’s pretty terrifying. Right now my idea is heavily based on a friendship I had in high school, and, as expected, the sections that come more naturally to me are scenes involving those two characters. I find I’m less motivated to write the straight-fiction parts, which will account for 75% of the novel. 

The easy solution is to make this a memoir, but then I’d be stuck with having to make it truthful, and frankly, this story would be very boring if I start and end it where it did in real life. I want to take it further and explore areas in that time period without having to worry about things like facts. The only problem is – I just can’t make myself sit down and write it.

I’m curious about what happens after the inspiration. It’s hard enough finding a muse and putting an idea down on paper. But, once you finally map out where you want to go, what makes you get in your car and drive there? I apologize for the weak metaphor, but you see what I mean. Any advice out there for me or to the other writers out there?

One last word on MFAs – despite my gripes, I don’t regret getting one. I know being in the program made me a better writer and I definitely learned more in those two years than I did in the four years I studied creative writing before that. However, they are expensive!!! I do not suggest going for the MFA right after college unless you are 100% certain that the only career for you is “author.” Even then, they’re not super necessary, but you do meet some great professors (many of whom have connections) and form a decent writing circle that will be super necessary later in your writing life.