When I started writing in a serious, dedicated way, I had 95 undergrad credits and three active student loans. I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree or an MFA and had never been to a writers’ workshop, but I believed in my stories.
As a gift, my parents paid for me to take a week-long writing workshop at the Chautauqua Institution, and more importantly, volunteered to babysit my boys (one of whom was still nursing, both of whom were still in diapers) so I could actually go to the daily two-hour class, and they did the same thing again the following two summers. Each time, I stayed in their basement and they fed me dinner.
I eventually went back to college and finally got my bachelor’s degree and then went on to get my MFA in creative nonfiction.
Here are my biggest takeaways from the experience:
One chapter of my memoir was written for one of those Chautauqua Institution Writer’s Workshops before I finished my undergrad. It was revised in my MFA, but not substantially. You don’t need a degree to be a strong writer.
The reason this chapter was strong writing was because I made myself relive that time in my life in excruciating detail. I didn’t sum it up or look for elevated language—I just put myself back in that place and wrote it down. The basic premise of show don’t tell is constantly repeated because it is solid advice.
One of the most important lessons I learned in the creative writing and journalism courses in my undergrad years was how to cut. I took two classes where the instructors were totally inflexible on word counts. I had to submit stories that were complete at 300 words. Cutting words is one of the single best ways I improved my writing. Girlish came in at 125,000 words. Just think how long it might have been if I hadn’t learned to cut.
That’s not to say that I didn’t get a lot out of my MFA. I did. I got to experiment with a lot of different styles and learned how to identify my two biggest flaws: passive voice and purple prose. I learned a lot about how to shape a memoir and what was possible in terms of form. I read at least 25 memoirs and 5 craft books each semester—that’s over 120 books in two years—and that was both invaluable and something I never would have been disciplined enough to complete on my own. I learned how to move beyond reading for pleasure and how to pay attention to craft. And I got to talk to published authors and amazing students and made friends with people who were just as passionate about writing as I am.
Speaking of MFA programs, I found mine, West Virginia Wesleyan College, through AWP’s handy guide to writing programs. They have guidance on what they think makes a strong MFA program, and a simple chart to compare programs.
Since graduating, I still attend writing conferences. I’d like to be a brilliant writer someday, and even though I’m not there yet, I’m hopeful that it’s still in the realm of possibility. This will be my third year at Hippocampus Magazine’s Creative Nonfiction Conference, and I hope to return to Key West Literary Seminar’s Writers Workshops for a second time in 2019. I’m scheduled for the 2018 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference and planning on AWP in Portland, with a hopeful eye on the NonfictioNOW 2018 conference in Arizona.
So what if you can’t go to conferences or MFA programs or even Community College? I’m not going to say that you have to move mountains to go back to school—sometimes it is just not possible for a variety of reasons, not all of which are financial. You can still improve your writing on your own. Read everything you can get your hands on.If you’re a memoir writer, here are five books to get you started. If you can read, you can learn to write. If you can find one or two critique partners, even better. Make a schedule and keep to it as if you had to pay student loans for the experience. And just keep writing. Put yourself in the protagonist’s eyes and write what they see, hear, feel, smell. Learn to love editing as much as drafting. Experiment, but save a copy of your original. Once you think your book is done, find some beta-readers to give you an honest opinion. Talk to everyone you can find who loves writing as much as you do.
Every year the Iowa Writer’s Program launches a free massive online class. I’ve taken two of them, and the students are excited to engage with others and offer feedback on work in progress. The readings and lectures are excellent, and did I mention it’s free? I also took a wonderful world literature class at HarvardX that was again, free. (There is a fee to obtain a certificate, but if you don’t need a certificate, you don’t need to pay.) While you are there, browse the whole EdX catalog. There’s a lot of free knowledge out there, if you know where to look. In the meantime, keep writing.