The 1000 Day MFA

the-1000-day-mfa

A while ago I wrote about what might be involved in a do-it-yourself MFA. Basically: lots of reading, lots of writing, some mentoring, and connection with other writers.

The best advice I’ve ever seen for how to become a solid writer comes from Ray Bradbury. His advice is a prescription for nightly reading, weekly writing, and watching a lot of movies.

READING

Bradbury suggests a short story, a poem, and an essay every night for 1000 nights. I have a feeling that he would hope that after close to three years of building this particular habit, you’d just keep going.

I’m going to expand on this advice, for the purpose of our 1000 Day MFA and say that if you harbor any dreams of writing a novel some day, you need to also read novels. Ideally, you’ll read a book a week. At the very least, read one novel a month.

Read widely. It’s perfectly fine to read novels in your genre, or popular books that everyone and their brother is reading. Read 50 Shades of Grey if that floats your boat. But also read classics. Read books written by authors who weren’t born where you were born. Read books written by authors who don’t look how you look. Read books that aren’t so easy to get through (I could only read about three pages of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse at a time.)

Train yourself to read like a writer. Pay attention to the craft behind the books you choose. Why do some books remain bestsellers for decades? Why do some fall off the face of the planet a few weeks after they’re released? What works for you in every bo0k–and why? What doesn’t–and why?

Schedule a weekly library trip into your week. If you’re like me and you feel compelled to own books, scope out used book stores and thrift stores. Keep your eye open for books that will add to your autodidact education. If you read a novel that peaks your interest in some subject, read on that subject. Think way beyond your personal box and outside your wheelhouse.

When you’re choosing your essays, Bradbury says you should read through a wide variety of disciplines and I agree. Read science. Read history. Read religion. Read geography, zoology, astronomy, sociology. The goal is to expand your mind to wide, wide range of ideas floating around in the world.

Also, read a writing craft book once a month. Or, at least, part of one. Read it deeply. Do the exercises. Apply what you’re learning to your writing.

So:

Daily: Read one short story, one poem, and one essay.

Weekly: Read a novel (this can be monthly, but try to make it weekly or biweekly.)

Monthly: Read a writing craft book.

WRITING

Bradbury’s advice is to write a short story a week for a year. I think it would be great to carry that on for the 1000 days.

If you’re working on a novel while you’re doing this project, write flash fiction. Write a 500 word short story every week, then spend your writing time on your novel. There is something magical about finishing something so regularly. I’m just learning that myself, as I take on this story-a-week challenge.

If you want to be a novelist, I think it’s reasonable to make a goal of writing a short story (or even flash fiction story) once a week, and one novel a year.

WATCHING MOVIES

Bradbury was a movie buff with an exceptional memory. He writes in Zen in the Art of Writing about watching Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 when he was three years old. He advises lots of movie watching. I like this advise! To make it more compatible with a program, let’s call it three movies a week for 1000 days.

Movies are great, because it lets you immerse yourself in story for two hours without anything pulling you away. And it gives you an entire three-act story in a single sitting.

KEEP RECORDS

I’ve set up a notebook for keeping records of my 1000 day challenge. Or, actually, for the first year. I’ll end up with three notebooks. (I’m using one of these open-spine notebooks by Studio Oh because it lays open flat and it the exact right size for what I need.)

Here are the sections I used:

  1. 52 Short Stories. I have a couple of pages set aside for just listing the stories, numbered 1-52. Then I have 52 pages numbered correspondingly, one for each story. On the story page I put the title at the top, some info including a one or two sentence synopsis at the bottom, and the rest of the page is divided between notes on story progress and notes on submissions.
  2. Novels. I have one page to list any novels I work on in 2017, followed by about 10 blank pages so I can take notes on each one.
  3. 1000 Days. This section starts with a detail of my plan (which I’ve talked about here in this post.) Then I have 52 pages (front and back, so one whole page), one for each week, where I’ll list the poem, essay, short story I read each day, plus the movies I watch, any novels I read, and the name of the short story I write, as well as any revisions I do on past weeks’ short stories.
  4. The rest of the book is for ideas. As I have an idea for a short story, I just jot it down.

The Mentor/Community Piece

This is my favorite part!

There are two things you can do. You can join the Ninja Writer Facebook Group and hang out there. I’m around everyday and I’m happy to answer questions if you tag me. You’ll find a whole family full of writers there to connect with. Come search out a partner. Post weekly for accountability. Let us be there for you.

If you want to take it a step further though, you can join the 1000 Day MFA School. You do that by heading over to Patreon and supporting Ninja Writers at the $10 per month level or above.

If you join the school you’ll get:

  • Access to my notebook. I’ll post my weekly reading and writing. Hopefully it will inspire you!
  • Access to a private Facebook Group only for 1000 Days students.
  • Weekly encouragement from me. When I come across a great poem, essay, or short story, I’ll post it to the Facebook group. (In fact, I think we should all do that! And now I have goosebumps.)

The difference between a free Facebook Group and a Facebook Group full of people who are paying to be there (even a small amount) is profound. Our group will be full of writers who are serious about this thing. The posts will be super focused. You’ll be able to connect with each other, which is absolutely the coolest part about being in an MFA program. And I’ll be there as your mentor.

I won’t be teaching this like a class–just facilitating peer feedback and being there as a mentor if you have questions about writing short stories or want to talk about what you’re reading.

When you support Ninja Writers at the $10 level, you get all kinds of rewards, too. Including access to some cool classes on Teachable.

This group will be focused on reading and short story writing. The A Novel Idea group (which you can join if you sign up at Patreon at the $25 level or above) is our group for novel writing.

Pacing Ourselves

A thousand days is about three years, which is a common length for a traditional MFA program.

I think you can do the reading in an hour a day, and the writing in another hour. What are the chances that for three straight years, you’re going to follow this program every single day? Probably pretty slim. And that’s okay. Life happens. We get caught up in other things.

But, if you take this challenge, I hope you’ll take it seriously. The same way you’d take it if you were spending $20,000 a year on an MFA from a university. Make the reading and writing a habit and, I promise you, that habit will serve you throughout your writing career.

The goal is to get to 1000 days where you’ve read and written. If it takes you five years to get to day 1000, okay then. If it takes you ten years, no problem. But, you’ll benefit from building up the discipline to read and write intensely every day.

Wrapping it Up

Just so it’s all in once place, here’s what we’re doing for 1000 days.

Daily:

Read a short story, a poem, and an essay.

Weekly:

Write a short story.
Watch three movies.

Monthly:

Read at least one novel.
Read one craft book.

Yearly:

Write one novel.

Are you in? Head over to Patreon and get signed up (at the $10 level or above.)

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The Art of Being an Autodidact: A Homegrown MFA

autodidactI’m right at the start of my second semester of work toward an MFA in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College. It’s a low-residency program, which means I go to school for 8 days, twice a year, and do all the work at home working remotely with a mentor.

This particular program features one residency for every two year program that’s outside of the US, so I got to spend 8 days studying in Jamaica at the start of January. Beautiful. Inspiring. Warm. Regardless of where it happens, though, there is nothing quite like submersion in writing for more a week or so.

There are definite benefits to an official MFA program at an accredited university. A big one being that it’s a terminal degree that will allow you to teach at the university level, if you choose to. The residency gives you a chance to connect on a deep level with your fellow students and working closely with a mentor for months is a great experience. It can also lend you some

But it’s also very expensive and not for everyone.

So, I was thinking . . . it might be interesting to think about how someone could do the work of an MFA, without the expense (or the benefits of an official degree.)

Let’s call it an NFA: a Ninja of Fine Arts degree.

An autodidact is a self-taught person. So, an NFA is an autodidact. Cool, right?

Here’s what’s involved in a low-residency MFA program:

  • Lots and lots of reading. (I’m required to read about 10 books per month.)
  • Fiction writing and revision. (I turn in about 40 pages per month, 20 of new writing, 20 of revision.)
  • Work with a mentor.
  • Workshopping with other writers.
  • In-person classes during residency.

Here’s how I think that could translate:

READING

Read wide and deep. Read in your genre and in every other genre. Read craft books and do the exercises in them.

Keep a running annotated bibliography (go ahead and use the MLA format, it will make you feel official.) Annotation can be as simple as a note about what you liked or didn’t like about the book. Look at the book as a writer–what did you learn from it?

Keep a reading log. I just write the title and author of every book I read in a special notebook.

A good place to start is 10 minutes of reading every single day. No matter what. Also carry a book with you. Keep one in the bathroom and in your car and anywhere else you might have a minute or two to read a page or two.

Start to build a writing craft library. Here are some of my favorites to give you starting point:

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

On Writing by Stephen King

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer

WRITING

The goal is to consistently create new work. Be brave. Take risks. Write stories that you don’t feel ready to write. Write in formats that you’re not familiar with, in genres that make you uncomfortable. Stretch.

My recommendation, always: write at least 10 minutes every day. You’ll be shocked at what this tiny goal does for your writing career.

Ray Bradbury suggests writing one short story a week for a year. He says that it’s impossible to write 52 bad short stories in a row. I think this is a fine place to start. At the end of the year, you’ll have 52 short stories and some of them will probably be worth exploring as possibilities for expanding into novels.

Or write a novel in a year. A Novel Idea will help you with this. You can get access to that via Patreon.

Start to carry a writer’s notebook with you everywhere. Use it. Make notes on story ideas, on conversations you overhear, on places you visit

CLASSES

Seek out opportunities to learn in a classroom setting.

One idea is to check out the community education courses offered by your local community college. They often offer non-credit writing courses.

Take it a step further and sign up for a university writing workshop.

I offer two free courses, How to Develop + Test a Story Idea and a version of The Plotting Workshop.

Click on the Ninja Writer’s Academy tag here on this blog and check out those posts. Work your way through them.

Twice a year, clear your calendar and dedicate a week to immersing yourself in learning to be a better writer. If you can swing it, consider spending a weekend in a hotel, just writing without the distractions of home.

MENTORS

Join Ninja Writers on Facebook and reach out. Ask questions. Interact!

Join an in-person writer’s group. Check with your local library or book store, or if you’re in a city you might find a chapter of a larger writing group like Romance Writers of America or Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

If you can’t find an established group, put an ad in Craig’s List (or come over to our Facebook Group!) and try to get one started.

Workshopping with other writers is invaluable.

Try to attend at least one writer’s conference a year. You’ll meet other writers, including published authors who are at least a few steps ahead of you in the process, and have access to workshops. More importantly, you’ll be inspired to work.

 

 

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