Learning to Write: an Alarm, a Gun in the First Act, and an MFA

To all those also celebrating Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), I wish you l’shanah tova tikatevu!

clockMy writing education began in Mrs. Dubois’s 4th grade language arts class, when she gently informed me that stories were stronger when they didn’t end with “And then the alarm went off and I realized it was all a dream.” I had other wonderful teachers who taught me different literary forms and opened me to literature I never would have approached on my own (in 10th grade, I fell in love with Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES. Who woulda figured?)

In college, I studied screenwriting as a film student at NYU, where I learned that only three plots exist (although some extrapolate those out to thirty-six plots) and that the gun that we see in the first act better as heck have gone off by the third act (otherwise known as Chekov’s principle).

But it wasn’t just in school that I learned about writing. After a short stint in advertising, I realized that my scripts had significantly more exposition than a screenplay should, at which point, I switched my career aspirations to publishing.

I took a job as an editorial assistant at a book packager, and my boss was a dedicated editor who taught me the fine art of editing. The people and the work were fascinating, yet reading slush piles all day didn’t inspire me to run home to write my own great American novel. I moved into book production, where I worked with editors, proofreaders, and copyeditors. Because I wasn’t as knee deep in the manuscripts, I had the clear head to wake up in the wee hours of the morning and write short stories before heading to my day job.

Writing groups helped me understand how to shape those stories, but alas I knew in my heart that I wasn’t capturing what I hoped. Going to an office every day wasn’t giving me the time I wanted to devote to writing. I considered an MFA, but after earning a BFA that wasn’t doing me much good, I didn’t think I’d have much familial support. So at the age of twenty-three, I decided to quit my job, move somewhere cheaper than New York, and find a part-time job that would give me more time to write.

My parents were not enamored of the idea. “Are you sure that’s the best move?” my father asked.

“Absolutely,” I said. “It’s either that or an MFA in writing.”

“MFA!” my parents practically shouted at me.

Apparently, in my parents’ eyes, MFA trumps being potentially homeless and unemployed. After many mornings sweating over my writing samples, I was accepted at the University of Washington in Seattle. I packed my bag, borrowed my dad’s car, and headed west.

I took a lot of naps in the Suzzallo Library at UDub.
I took a lot of naps in the Suzzallo Library at UDub.
An MFA program isn’t for everyone. But for me, having a sanctioned two years to do nothing but write and read was a slice of heaven. A variety of literature classes gave me new ways to look at what I was creating. The workshops, while often giving me excellent critiques, also enabled me to develop the distance and thick skin that has become oh-so-necessary when looking at those first edits from editors. I learned about, what was to me at the time, a new form, creative nonfiction. I was drawn to it and in fact, in the years since, I’ve published more essays than short stories.

I finished my MFA almost twenty years ago, in 1996. I didn’t make the lifelong publishing connections that some make, but it gave me a solid foundation, the confidence to declare, out loud, “I’m a writer.” In the intervening years, I’ve worked as a writer, constantly learning new things and producing short pieces. In Seattle, I took the occasional class at the writing center Hugo House and when I moved to the Boston area, I continued at Grub Street, refreshing my skills, meeting other writers, and pumping new life into my work.

Is an MFA necessary? I don’t think this is a one-size-fits-all answer. If you have the time and the means to do so, it’s a rare opportunity to focus on your craft. If not, then you can get a heck of a lot out of a great writing group and the classes at your local writing center. Writing is learned all the time, from all sources. Every time you read a book, you learn about structure and characterization. Watch a movie and learn how to build suspense. Play with sentences to learn about language and rhythm. Eavesdrop on the kids at the next table at the café and learn about writing realistic dialogue. An MFA is necessary if you want to go into academia. Power of observation is necessary if you want to be a great writer.

And if nothing else, remember this: Don’t end your stories with “And then he woke up.” Sometimes those earliest lessons are the most valuable.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 10 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing Jennifer! I think it’s neat you continued to hone your craft even after getting your MFA. I wish I’d known about Grub Street when I lived in Southie 🙂 2/5 Debs studying there is pretty impressive…

  2. As I’m sure you know, MFA writing programs have a bad reputation in some circles. I’m glad to hear the other side of that story. (My parents would have made the opposite suggestion — in fact they sort of did. But I was eager and impatient to get out of school anyway, so that was fine with me.)

    I think it was a good idea to get out of the job reading through the slush pile. I have a friend, an aspiring writer, who got a similar job after college, and he never wrote again.

    I do have to say that I disagree with both of those “rules.” 🙂

    The “it was only a dream” ending can work wonderfully well in children’s books. It can teach two very valuable lessons: that dreams, no matter how scary, are just dreams and can’t hurt you, and that your dreams, and your imagination, can go anywhere.

    It can also work very well in comedy.
    The “Chekhov’s gun” thing has a lot of limits. For one thing, some characters go armed all the time.

    Also, showing a gun can be can be a way of establishing that a situation is dangerous. Sherlock Holmes quite often asks Watson to be sure to bring his old service revolver, but Watson almost never has to fire it. So, the reader knows that there is danger, but Holmes’ intelligence has averted bloodshed.

    Also, perhaps it’s my Quaker upbringing, but there are situations where not firing a gun can be as satisfying a decision as firing it, if not more so.

    My favorite moment in Les Miserables is when Jean Valjean decides not to shoot Javert.

    Sorry to go on and on, but that “rule” has always bugged me.

    1. Ah, Anthony, I don’t think we’re on such different sides! I will concur with you by saying that I think children’s books are a completely different story (both literally and figuratively!) and they are so far out of my realm (other than that I read them to my kids) that I wasn’t thinking of them when I wrote this.

      I will also say that Chekov’s principle does still, in my mind, apply to those situations you mention. I don’t think the gun needs to actually go off, but the power of Valjean *not* shooting is in the fact that Valjean has the gun at Javert. The gun plays a key role by not going off. I interpret the principle as saying, if you show something in the beginning, you’d better use it (in one form or another) later in the book. Hugo does that by not using the gun. For Holmes, the gun does just what you say–it serves the purpose of showing the dangerousness of the situation. To my mind, it’s saying, unless you’re writing a thriller of some sort, don’t purposely mislead your reader.

      I appreciate your chiming in! Never apologize for “[going] on and on”! Other points of views are ALWAYS welcome here! Thanks so much, Anthony!

      1. “if you show something in the beginning, you’d better use it (in one form or another) later in the book.”

        This is definitely true. I think what happens (this is the part that annoys me) is that these rules get repeated and oversimplified and flattened out until we get people saying silly things like “never use passive voice,” “never use filter words,” “no prologues,” and so on. And the very valuable information that may have been there at the beginning is lost.

        1. Anthony, if I might be so bold, I think that’s what makes the difference between a good writer and a great writer: a good writer knows all the rules; a great writer knows when to toss them. 🙂

          I think you and I are totally on the same page!

  3. I agree, Anthony — there is a debate out there about whether MFA programs help people become better writers or just churn out a bunch of trained write-bots that all write in a certain “MFA voice.” I’m in the former camp, with a small caveat: I think every time you’re learning a craft from someone (teacher, mentor, etc.), you need to mix respect for the teacher’s experience and knowledge with a degree of critical thinking that allows you to accept, adapt, rebut, or tune out their teachings as appropriate so that you develop your own voice. If you don’t, you run the risk of becoming just an imitator of your teacher. But Jennifer, knowing you even for this brief a time, I seriously doubt you were ever in any danger of that!! 🙂

  4. Jenny, I love this post about learning craft from both the MFA and from reading, writing groups, classes and everything else! I wish that I could have done an MFA, because I really believe in giving yourself that time to focus on your art.

    It’s such a delight to hear everyones education stories. Looking forward to the rest of the week.

  5. Jenny, what a great post. (Okay, Louise, here comes the baking metaphor)…So many ingredients in your recipe for success. Different writing-related jobs, listening, life experience. Which should be true for everyone who writes. And that may be the problem for many who get MFAs–if the academic environment is the only thing nurturing their voice, it will run the risk of being a weak echo of their teachers and/or peers. So interesting to learn about everyone’s educational/vocational journey this week…

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