Let’s be honest: creative writing programs are expensive.
I should know… my grad school loans just came due and even though I knew it would happen eventually, it sucks having to pay them back.
Still, I took out loans to get my MFA, and while the experience was very worthwhile for me, there are some ways to get an MFA experience without dropping the cash for a full-fledged program. Doing these things won’t yield a degree, obviously, but for some people it’s less about the diploma and more about the time dedicated to writing and learning.
And if you have the drive, you can do it to a certain degree without the structure of a graduate program.
Here are some ways to craft your own (fiction-geared) MFA program at home for a fraction of the cost of grad school. Customize it to fit you, whether you’re into nonfiction, poetry, writing for young people, or writing for stage and screen.
- Join or create a writing/critique group. Even though my MFA program was low-residency and I only had workshops for a week at the start of each semester, those critiques were extremely valuable for my writing process. Hearing what others think of your work (while you sit there mute) helps you understand exactly where your writing is doing its job– and more importantly, where it’s not. Taking part in a writing/crit group gives you the experience of having others read and comment on your work in real time. Plus, it might thicken your skin a little before you start submitting work to publications and get those first few rejections.
- Stock up on a few really good craft books. There are plenty out there (just ask Amazon), but some that I love include Stephen King’s On Writing, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While you’re at it, find some solid writing blogs and add them to your GoogleReader to stay current with the publishing world, or to get regular tips and tricks from established writers. Here are some that I like: Victoriamixon.com, Beyond The Margins, NataliaSylvester.com, Pimp My Novel, What Not to do as a Writer, Write to Done, Writer’s Digest blogs, Courage 2 Create.
- Build a writing schedule for yourself. In an MFA program, your creative writing is given a lot of attention every week, despite the time demanded by your job, family, responsibilities, or even lack of motivation. To ensure productivity, give yourself a schedule. Maybe you chip away at some new writing or revisions for a couple hours in the morning. Or perhaps you read and do some exercises before bed. Decide how many hours a week you can dedicate to your “MFA” and carve that time out– no matter what. Put it in your calendar if you have to!
- Read. A lot. Like, even more than you do now. Gotta do it. Read short stories, novels, novellas, poetry, nonfiction, scripts, YA. You name it. Read it. It’s the only way to learn how to write better– not even the best graduate program in the world will teach the things you’ll learn from reading everything you can get your hands on.
- Go to readings. Listen. Get up and read. I was terrified when I had to give a public reading before graduating from my MFA program, but it was one of those scary-yet-worthwhile experiences that leave you feeling exhilarated. So don’t spend all your time holed up in your house tapping away at the computer. Find local readings. See how other writers do it, then find an open mic somewhere (or host your own!) and experience the fear and thrill of reading in public.
- Submit your writing. Eventually you’ll want people to see the work you’ve done, so send your work out. One mentor told me to submit to about 6 publications at a time, especially ones that accept simultaneous submissions. Duotrope is an invaluable resource when you start submitting work. Check it out even if you’re not ready to send your stuff out just yet!
- Do writing exercises. Buy yourself a nice notebook and fill it with exercises. Get The Artist’s Way or The Daily Writer to get you started, or find blogs or website that post exercises. Encourage your writing group to come up with interesting prompts for each other, too. Think of writing like any other muscle in your body– you need to work it in all sorts of ways to keep it in shape. And you never know when one of those exercises will spark an idea for a new piece of work.
- Rewrite, revise, edit your brains out. Do one more rewrite than you think you need. Have a trusted reader give you feedback. Make more changes. Edit. Edit. Edit. Because if you were in a real MFA program, you would be editing a ton (for your benefit, of course). Just know when a piece is as done as it will be for the time being, and don’t stress yourself out.
- Decide on an end-goal. What’s your ultimate intention with a DIY MFA? Do you want to improve your writing? Concentrate on building a collection of short stories (or poems or scripts or whatever)? Strengthen your biggest writing weakness? Create your own writing community? Build a writing routine? Write your novel? And how long will you give yourself? 6 months? A year? two? You won’t have to worry about a thesis, but you can do one for shits and giggles if you want. The options are almost endless when you design your own unofficial MFA. Tailor it to suit your needs.