Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Education (or: How I Got Published, Part 8)

Whew. Well, I’m back! To say I’m caught up wouldn’t be entirely accurate, but I think I’m at least back on track.

Continuing my “how I got published” series, today I’m going to talk about education. To over-simplify things, there are two types of writing education: formal (MFA programs, paid writing workshops with professionals, etc.*) and informal (just about everything else).

Informal education is the most important, and that’s pretty nice because—guess what—it’s free! For me, my informal writing education consists of the following:
  1. Writing (about 90% of it, actually) - to learn it I’ve got to do it.
  2. Reading (around 9% of my “informal” writing education) - to learn it I’ve got to study it.
  3. Everything else: community classes, podcasts, writing groups, panels and workshops at conferences and conventions, etc. (1%).
And, honestly, that’s about all I’ll say about that, because people seem to agree pretty unanimously that those things are important. What I’m going to focus on is formal education—I got an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University, so I’m qualified enough to at least throw my two cents into the ring.

To make this easy, I’m going to break it down to a simple Pros/Cons list. Let’s do the Pros of my MFA program first:
  • I learned a lot about the craft. I studied a lot of theory during my degree, and it was all helpful. They say you need to learn the rules before you break them—a saying I absolutely agree with—and I learned a lot of the rules in my MFA program. You can learn “the rules” in other ways, of course, but this was a structures, mentored, accelerated way to do it, and I’m ver glad I did.
  • I did a lot of reading—a lot of it was theory, yes, but even more of it was just other authors, from classics to contemporaries and everything in between. Again, I could read stuff anytime, but this was guided, directed, mentored reading, and in my opinion that really does make a difference.
  • I learned how to read (better). I wasn’t too shabby of a reader before, but my ability to critique and analyze definitely increased. This also carries over to my ability to participate in writing workshops and groups—I can give much more effective critiques now than I did before my MFA program.
  • I taught writing—and not just freshman comp., but creative writing courses, too. I’m not sure if that’s something every MFA program offers—I know a lot of them do—but mine did, and it was a fantastic opportunity. Teaching required me to take things I’d learned and regurgitate them in a way that would be helpful to others, and that, of course, only helped me learn the concepts better.
  • I met cool and interesting people, including professors I worked with, visiting writers, and students alongside whom I learned. We workshopped one another’s writing, went on retreats together, played a game of inner-tube water polo or two, and overall had a grand old time.
  • I learned about genres outside my own. I took a creative nonfiction class and a Young Adult lit. class. I mentored under a phenomenal poetry professor who helped me understand the importance of words and meaning in poetry. I’m a big advocate of reaching outside of myself for different experiences, and my MFA program helped me do that. Each one of them was valuable to me.
You might be thinking, “That all sounds great! Sign me up!” And, well, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea. But before you do anything rash, let me tell you about the Cons:
  • We didn’t talk much about the writing business. I took two classes that were exceptions to this, thankfully. In the YA lit class I mentioned earlier, the professor did make an effort to include some very helpful aspects of the writing business. Also, I took Brandon Sanderson’s writing course, and while it was technically an undergrad course I finagled the system in such a way that they counted it, anyway, and that course definitely spoke to the business side of writing. But, unfortunately, I think those two classes are exceptions rather than the rule. I could have easily gotten through my MFA program without picking up a lick of knowledge on the writing business. MFA programs are about craft and preparing people to teach writing more than anything; their primary purpose doesn’t seem to be to produce people who plan on writing in order to make a living. And that’s fine—just be sure you understand what an MFA program is offering before you get into one.
  • Genre fiction is not generally what faculty expect or want MFA students to produce. There are exceptions to this, too (Seton Hill, most notably, has a low-residency Popular Fiction program), but the rule remains. BYU, given the types of popular writers who have come out of that university (Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull, and Stephanie Meyer to name only a few), was more lenient than other universities on this, but a sense a sense of mild disdain still lingered whenever popular genre fiction came up. People read it, but the idea of writing the stuff seemed to be the issue. To be fair, I think I should have been a bit more up front about my own predilection toward fantasy fiction. If I had, I honestly don’t think most people would have cared (my professors might have, but certainly not my peers). But there was a cultural, almost subliminal reaction against genre writing, and I fell into that way of thinking—or at least felt trapped by it, at any rate. At some point I even questioned whether I really wanted to write fantasy fiction in the first place—a phase I’m happy to say I overcame. And, well here I am.
  • All that I learned about craft and all the reading I did, I probably could have brought about on my own—or at least without paying for and attending an MFA program. This isn’t much of a con, because I do think it would have taken years and years longer to absorb that information, but I’m certain I could have eventually discovered what I learned in less formal ways.
  • They can be very competitive. Getting into an MFA program isn’t easy—I applied to thirteen programs and was accepted to two. 
  • It costs money—a hard fact. There are a number of programs that will offer very fine stipends, scholarships, and paid teaching opportunities, but the more money they throw at you, the more competitive their acceptance rate.
So, while an MFA program is absolutely not necessary to “make it as a writer,” it may be a good idea. There are pros and cons, but for me, the pros certainly came out ahead.

That said, what certainly is necessary to “make it as a writer” is education in general. That education’s level of formality matters far less than whether it exists in the first place. Writing is a craft that can be learned like anything else, but learning is the active word, there. Writing and reading take priority over everything. Beyond that, the question is: what kind of education should you pursue to become a better writer? In the end, nothing else matters.

* I don’t have much experience with professional writing workshops and/or retreats. (I’m not talking about conferences or conventions, where these things usually have a minimal cost—I mean the big ones, usually on location somewhere, with some big names brought in or running the thing that usually cost $1,000+.) I’m sure there are pros and cons to these events—I’ve heard many wonderful things about them, and a few horror stories, too. Like everything, the way to approach them seems to be with lots of research, to discern whether they’re right for you.

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