Going for an MFA?

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Going for an MFA?
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“You take people as far as they will go, not as far as you would like them to go.” Jeannette Rankin

“I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t remember what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose.” P.G. Wodehouse

Going for an MFA?

A writer asked me awhile back whether I would recommend attending an MFA program.

No, I wouldn’t.

Listen, if you’re thinking about going for an MFA so you can write fiction, just don’t. An MFA program can run you anywhere from $25,000 to over $70,000. During the program, you will learn a bunch of “rules” that are not only unnecessary but will actually harm your career.

It isn’t uncommon for an MFA grad to “lock up” and be unable to write fiction at all because s/he feels pressured to succeed because of all the money s/he spent on that MFA. Vicious circle, anyone? Pressure is never conducive to writing quality fiction. Never.

Still, somehow it makes perfect sense to would-be writers to pay upward of $25,000 to an instructor with a few short story collections and a “really great theory” to teach them how to write.

Yet somehow it makes no sense at all to those same would-be writers to spend 1/10th or even 1/100th of that to learn how to write from a guy who’s written 72 novels, 9 novellas, and around 230 short stories across several genres, all in a period of around 6 years. Go figure. (grin)

The Would-Be Writer Mindset—The big problem is that, like pretty much all writers (and I was no exception), you’re beginning with a “would-be writer” mindset. Because practically everyone says so, you feel there is something you have to do, a series of boxes you have to check or dues you have to pay, before you can write quality fiction.

I’m here to tell you that is simply not true.

And some believe they can check off that series of boxes by attending an MFA program. That also is not true.

Via the MFA program, you’re hoping to attain two things:

1. knowledge—

But you already have a lot of knowledge. You only need to apply it through practice. To gain more knowledge, you need to learn  from more advanced writers who have been where you are now, who have put millions of words of fiction on the page, not from someone who is operating strictly on a theory.

2. confidence—

Confidence is the belief that you have the necessary knowledge. This requires you to believe in yourself. Do you stop and question whether to put a period or a question mark at the end of a sentence, or do you do it automatically? Of course, you do it automatically, without thinking about it. Because that knowledge is lodged deep inside your creative subconscious.

Likewise, your knowledge of Story is there too. You have been learning and absorbing Story, both in and out of classrooms, your entire life. Most of what you learned about Story you learned subconsciously, outside the classroom. You absorbed and learned  that knowledge from books you read and television shows and plays you watched, and even from some of the better commercial advertising.

Now you only have to believe in yourself, trust in yourself and what you know without realizing on a conscious level that you know it.

Shysters Abound—Any number of self-appointed writing gurus out there (MFA programs included) will gladly tell you that you have to learn how to write. Well, duh. They do that because the less you believe you know and the less you believe in yourself, the bigger their bank account will grow with your hard-earned dollars.

Have I asked you for money? No? Good. So trust me. I don’t have an agenda here.

You don’t need all that nonsense. You don’t need an MFA, and you don’t need most of the how-to writing books out there. At least pause for a moment and ask yourself whether the how-to book you’re thinking about buying is exactly like one you’ve bought before. If it doesn’t teach you something new and exciting, put it back on the shelf and save your money.

The bottom line is this: If you want to write, you can. Right now. You’ve got this.

But of course, you have free will, and therefore you have options:

1. You can spend all that money on an MFA to learn exactly the same fear-based rules you can learn from almost any how-to writing book or self-appointed writing guru out there for a LOT less money.

Here, I’ll give them to you free of charge right now. To write quality fiction (um, I’m Lying) you must

a. outline, character sketch, and world build
b. write, but mechanically, consciously, critically, carefully, word by word, sentence by sentence, being sure to include “rising action,” “mirror moments,” “plot points,” “plot twists,” and all the other deconstructionist BS ad nauseam (more on this tomorrow)
c. revise
d. seek and accept critical input (because you can’t write a story alone—it takes a village)
e. rewrite to apply the critical input
f. send the semi-finished product to beta readers for more critical input
g. polish

These are a few of the rules you will learn, and if you follow them they will actually harm your career as a writer.

a. They will slow you down so that you practice far less, and

b. because you aren’t practicing as much they will retard your progress along the learning curve of the craft.

2. Or you can forget the MFA. In fact, if you paid me even 1/10th of what you were going to blow on an MFA, I would personally teach you everything you need to know to write quality, salable vignettes, flash fiction, short stories, novellas, and novels, both literary and across several commercial genres. If you wanted, I would even throw-in how to write verse and essays at no additional cost. And yes, I’ve got the chops to teach all of that. BUT—

3. I’m only kidding about paying me. You don’t have to pay me. If you want, of course, you can become a patron of this Journal (see https://hestanbrough.com/patronage-and-donations/) at any level. You’re more than welcome and I’m certainly grateful.

But all you really have to do to learn how to write quality fiction is stick around and read this stuff. Through this Journal and the Journal Archives (see https://hestanbrough.com/the-daily-journal-archives-gifts-dvds/), I will STILL teach you everything you need to know to write vignettes, flash fiction, short stories, novellas, and novels, both literary and across several commercial genres.

As a result, you will actually have FUN writing fiction, and as a bonus, you won’t have to pay off a b’jillion dollar student loan.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with a post on your choices as a writer: You can write like a writer (create) or you can write like a critic (construct).

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Your Favorite?” at https://deanwesleysmith.com/your-favorite/#comments. If you’re considering taking any of Dean’s workshops you might check out the comments.

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1190 words

Writing of Wes Crowley: Deputy US Marshal 2 (WCG9SF4)

Day 1…… 3231 words. Total words to date…… 3231
Day 2…… 2990 words. Total words to date…… 6221
Day 3…… 1805 words. Total words to date…… 8026
Day 4…… 2025 words. Total words to date…… 10051

Total fiction words for March……… XXXX
Total fiction words for 2023………… 52824
Total nonfiction words for March… 2760
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 44090
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 96914

Calendar Year 2023 Novels to Date…………………… 1
Calendar Year 2023 Novellas to Date……………… 0
Calendar Year 2023 Short Stories to Date… 0
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 72
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: Because It Makes Sense, I preach trusting your characters to tell the story that they, not you, are living. Duh. See My Best Advice for Fiction Writers at https://hestanbrough.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/My-Best-Advice-for-Fiction-Writers.pdf.

8 thoughts on “Going for an MFA?”

  1. It was a joke that I heard from a writer in my country that the biggest mistake he made was to go to the University and that he learned literature… He should have take marketing course instead. Not the writing was hard for him but to sell his stories. In my country there are several courses teach you to write, almost more than writers there are. The facebook and other advertisings send me many many many links where I could spend my money. As a beginner and yet a wannabe-writer, sometimes some of them seems I should take them. And sometimes it takes time to turn my time into writing instead of talking about writing. Thanks for this article. It was good to read it.

    • Thanks, Balázs. Believe me, that’s a world-wide problem, the glut of offers to teach you how to do something you already knwo: write.

    • If you are curious, which writers from your country are read abroad, here they are for Russia: a droupot medic Frigyes Karinthy and chemical engeneer István Örkény.

      Lajos Mesterházi was graduated in philology (mostly because he needed some education for career in finances) and I liked some of his short stories. But his opus magnum “A Prométheusz — rejtély” for me isn’t work on mythology, more like a satirical review of the world in the age of Cold War.

      • Thanks. I’m reading Ernest Hemingway on Writing. According to quotes from him in that book, Turgeneiff (Turgenev) was among his greatest influences, and Tolstoi (Tolstoy) was another. He enjoyed Dostoyevski but not as much. “How could a man write so badly … and make you feel so deeply?” He thought “Chekov wrote about 6 good stories. But he was an amateur writer. Tolstoi was a prophet. … Turgenieff was an artist.” All still only opinions, of course.

        • Yep, Turgeneiff is just French spelling of his surname. He lived in France for a long time and influenced the whole generation of Belle Epoque writers.
          His short stories (mostly collected in his first book, “A Sportsman’s Sketches”) are famous of been overfilled with descriptions of nature, but he did a lot to develop genre of short novel.
          For me, it’s very sad that Russian literature almost lost pulp tradition. There were “red pulp” boom during 1920th, with sci-fi novels by Alexander Belyaev and adventure satire by Ilya Erenburg, but after establishing of Union of Soviet Writers (1934) it was all gone. Soviet-age literature can be fun, but is too serious.
          There’s some revival of it during 1990th, but there’re still too a lot of literary authors and the ones who is sure that write interesting means writing crap.

  2. Its the same in the screenwriting world. There’s many ‘gurus’ telling you what to do, what not to do and many haven’t written a script that sold or been hired on many assignments yet somehow they can tell you how to do it.

    What’s more, many of the so called ‘do nots’ they tell you not to do (like using ‘we see’. Not to describe what your characters look like much or what they wear. No telling their thoughts etc) are crap and can be easily ‘outed’ by simply reading screenplays that have those things.
    But many beginning screenwriters are convinced, like many prose fiction writers, that there are different ‘rules’ for pros and them, as if the pros have some great mystical power they must struggle years and a day to obtain.

    • Thanks, Matt. I find it remarkably (and ironically) funny that the whole secret to success as a writer is Let Go of the BS.

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