Do-It-Yourself MFA… Without The Price Tag

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.

such is the life...
My real-life creative writing notebook from college (pre-MFA).

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.
  • 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.
Bottom line, you don’t need to go to grad school and get an MFA to be a writer. You learn how to write by doing it often, reading constantly, and revising what you create until it shines. If you don’t want to take on the crushing oppression of student loans (can you see how excited I am to repay mine?), but you want to focus on your writing in a structured way, consider a DIY MFA. Besides, DIY is so hip right now!😉
Do you have an MFA? Are you planning to get one? On the fence? Totally against it? Share your thoughts on this subject! 

13 thoughts on “Do-It-Yourself MFA… Without The Price Tag”

  1. Thanks for writing this! Going to check out some of those craft books…

    I still want an MFA though, maybe I’m greedy. Sigh. Someday…. when I’m rich😉

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    1. Those craft books are fabulous– I think you’ll like them! And it’s totally not greedy to want a real MFA, too. There are some things a DIY MFA just can’t replicate, like the academic atmosphere of being at a college, or the interdisciplinary studies some programs weave into the curriculum. But I think taking elements of an MFA and doing it yourself can be just as beneficial as a real program in some ways! Good luck, let me know how it goes for you🙂

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  2. Great list (and thank so much for the mention!).

    I completely agree that an MFA can be very valuable, but if you’re not able to go that route, DIYing it is just as great an alternative. I applied and got into a few MFA programs in 2008, but by the time I received my acceptance letters, so much had changed in the economy and in my life that I opted not to go. I’d gotten my BA in creative writing, so I tried to build a foundation from that. I think what it really takes (more than anything else) is discipline and drive.

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    1. I agree completely– if you have the discipline and drive, you can do it yourself to an extent. The MFA program is actually where I learned that discipline. Working on a schedule and knowing I was accountable to my mentor helped push me through periods where I didn’t think I could write anything decent. It put me in the mindset of “just get the work done” and from there I could revise, workshop, etc. But now that I’m done with the MFA, I have to be accountable to myself… which is totally possible for anyone who wants to buckle down and do some MFA-worthy writing without a program. I plan on doing most if not all of the things on my list for years to come, even though I have a real MFA.

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  3. Great suggestions! I just started my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Which low res program did you go to?

    I still have some doubts about the whole MFA thing, especially the loan part of it. I do think a lot of writing can be self-taught, but having the degree and guidance can be really beneficial.

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  4. I love this post! I REALLY want to get my MFA some day, but for the present moment decided to start an MA program for linguistics instead. I just felt like I wasn’t ready for an MFA program yet, but a part of me still wishes I had decided to take that route right now (what can I say, I’m an impatient person).
    Anyways, your tips helped me realize that even though I probably won’t be getting my MFA anytime soon, I can still do a lot to grow into a writer right now. Thanks for the advice and inspiration! And I hope you don’t mind, but I clicked ‘follow.’ I’m new too blogging and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to ask before I follow. I’m trying to learn blogging etiquette but I’m a total noob.

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