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