This week’s topic: “MFA vs NYC vs Choose Your Own Adventure.”
Aloha. What if my writing education has been all three? I confess I’m a bit of a professional student. I love to be in a class, I love to have homework and get direction. The underlying motivation all throughout my writing life has been my desire to find community and gain skills, to chip away at a steady pace. I’ve also been an avid reader. In fact, all of the writers I know who take the practice of writing seriously are serious readers. Because I loved to read I wanted to write.
When I was growing up in NC, I often felt alone and different. Although I started writing poetry in elementary school, I didn’t try a “real” class until I was in my late teens. The one creative writing class I took as an undergraduate was disastrous and resulted in my three-year hiatus from any creative writing. My one creative writing and literature class during my first stint in graduate school in Illinois was wonderful, and I really wanted to pursue it somehow. Still, I shelved my desire to write fiction and poetry and concentrated on journalism.
I did get an MFA in NYC in the mid-1990s. I was in my late 20s. The most valuable lessons from that time were my classes with a few faculty who taught me how to listen to my own instincts – and my classmates. The community and friendship with my peers have proved to be the best assets of an MFA; their encouragement and support have been invaluable over the years.
I began to choose my own adventure in 2004, when I first went to poetry workshops at Squaw Valley. As a poet, I generated new work and made terrific friends. I returned four years later, when my children were older and I had a chance to breathe in between their summer schedules. I turned fully toward the workshop junkie route in 2013 about six months after my family and I were forced to leave our home in Georgia and relocate. Two years before the move to California, I was in a steady writing group on the verge of finishing a novel, when my husband was targeted by his former employer in Atlanta — the state police raided my house at gunpoint. Among the items the police seized was my laptop. I lost most of my work. It took years for me to somehow recover. Although a state judge dismissed all the baseless charges against my husband in late 2016, we have yet to see the return of most of our belongings confiscated that day of the raid. This includes my computer.
I chose my own adventures over the past several years, to get help. I’m enormously grateful for all of the support and encouragement. I’m super grateful for the financial support I’ve received too. I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend several of these classes. Many of the conferences I’ve attended have been generative, and that’s helped me finish my projects. It’s worked – I have the poetry chapbooks and my debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, to show for it. I try to pay it forward these days – and assist others in the same way I’ve been helped.
I don’t think you need an MFA to write. I do think you need to find friends, and build a writing practice and develop a writing community. Go to the library, attend readings, meet people and ask around – there are writers groups everywhere. Find one that has like-minded people and together build a community. Mahalo.
Books to consider in establishing a steady writing practice: