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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2 Comments

  1. I love this!!! I am going to do it. I have a goal to read more books this year. I usually have two going at one time, a novel and a craft book. This gives me another good reason to expand my reading practice. Thanks!

  2. I love this! I like this annotated bibliography and reading log ideas.
    There is a new book called DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira that delves way deeper into this idea of a do-it-yourself MFA. The book is divided into four sections: Orientation, Write With Focus, Read With Purpose, and Build Your Community. I encourage anyone who wants to be a student of Writing to add this to their writing shelf.