Reading like a writer

Back in February, I was interviewed by The MFA Project, a tumblr created by Rebecca Wallwork as “an experiment in creating one’s own MFA education via a dream team of teachers without the price tag of a degree. In other words, an MFA that is complete fiction.”  Rebecca asked me four questions.  Here is my first answer.  For the rest, you know what to do!

What advice would you offer to writers and poets who aren’t part of an MFA program but are trying to grow and learn in their craft?

Read. Read what you love; read what you’ve never heard of; read with stickies on your side table, a notebook in your lap and questions in your mind. You can learn everything from books, and once you buy them, they are your teachers. No tuition necessary.

I do teach in an MFA program, and bear with me; I need to tell you about it to contextualize my advice. Goddard College created the first low-residency program; ours is the model all the others have copied, and it was conceived as a hybrid solution: writers could come to campus at the beginning of every semester for a week of residency, and then go back to their lives at home and write with the support of a mentor.

In a way, it’s the anti-MFA, but with a community and a teacher thrown in. The writer is working at home alone, on track to finish a full manuscript in two years, and while she is writing, she is also reading at least 45 books and using those books to learn to see how the author writes, the choices the author makes, and their effect on the reader. So when I am advising students – here’s some free MFA advice – I tell them to ask their questions to their reading lists: How do I speed up this dialogue, jump from scene to scene, end my chapters, order my chapters, develop my mystery, describe a room, show and tell at the same time, place my turning points and climaxes? Whatever your question, you can pick up a book and see how that author answered it. Maybe that person’s solution works for you, maybe not, but if you are a writer you will have shelves full of books and a well-used library card, so consult another one.

I love the Goddard program. That’s why I teach there. And if you are on the fence about an MFA and you have the resources, I highly recommend it (in fact I will get on the telephone with you to talk about it.) But I will tell you: I don’t have an MFA…

I’m a self-taught writer, and I learned exactly this way. When I was writing my first novel, I picked up books I loved and mapped them out.  How many chapters? (Seriously.) What is the trajectory for this character, and what’s going down for the other one? I identified the turning points, looked for the places where I was surprised and traced the clues backward so I could see how the author placed them. And because I taught myself, those are lessons I will never forget.

What else did I say?  Visit The MFA Project by clicking here.

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Posted: March 15th, 2016
Categories: The Writing Life, Writing Advice
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