“Doing the MFA Thing”
By Jeff Bowles
The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
When I was deciding to go back to school for an MFA, I noticed that a lot of writers—particularly those working in Science Fiction and Fantasy—looked down on the need to earn a secondary degree in what is essentially a field dominated by outsiders and formerly independent upstarts. Most successful writers have no MFA, after all. They learned to write successfully on their own. Teachers and professors need MFAs, but not writers. That’s the general feeling out there.
And I had no intention of becoming a teacher. I did, however, have a strong desire to tell stories at a higher level than I was capable of at that time. The thought of going back to school was both exciting and nausea inducing. Like many writers, I’ve got a touch of anxiety and isolationism. Meeting new people, lots of new people, it can be tricky for me. I also knew if I chose the wrong program, it’d set me back in my career rather than push me forward.
If you are considering a creative writing MFA, know there are basically two categories these kinds of programs can fall into: literary and traditional vs. everyone else. I write genre fiction. I’m a hopeless pop culture nerd and it never occurred to me to write anything else. Luckily, that made my decision much easier. Sensing correctly that most traditional master’s programs can get snobby about what and how you write, I knew I needed to place myself among like-minded people. At the time I decided to apply, the early part of 2013, there were only a few programs in the United States that specialized in genre fiction (that is to say, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, Crime; you know, the good stuff). Two of these were clear across the country, and all had a ‘low residency’ requirement, which is just another way of saying students have to live on campus a few weeks of the year.
The third program I found was a fairly new entry into what has since become a growing category of alternative MFA programs and certificates. It was also in my home state, Colorado, about 150 miles west of the little prairie town where I live with my wife. Western State Colorado University is a small but growing mountain college nestled in the Gunnison Valley, absolutely beautiful place, especially in the summer. The setting is rustic, but I’m a rural Colorado guy anyway, so it suited me just fine. Like I said, I was pretty nervous about meeting a whole new group of people, but I was hopeful in the very least that I’d come out of the program a much better writer, ready to take on the literary world in all its many serpentine manifestations.
During the two years I attended Western, I wrote an enormous amount of material, the majority of which I published. Actually, I started publishing it in the middle of my coursework, which impressed my classmates. I’d already been writing seriously for seven or eight years, and that’s kind of a stereotypical calibration mile marker at which point writers ‘stop being just okay’ and ‘start getting good’. Anyway, maybe the timing was on my side. Make no mistake, writers can be a jealous and fickle lot, and many who doubt their own abilities fall victim to popular whims and the nasty habit of clinging to others who, ehem, smell like success. That’s actually a constant in entertainment industries far and wide, so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that nastiness and in-fighting can and do occur in MFA programs.
So while I can honestly say I produced a large amount of quality (and more importantly, saleable) work, the sum total of the experience was perhaps not exactly what I expected. For one, if you find that you’re a bit of a loner—as many authors are—you may consider other avenues. The notion of community is indeed important, but in programs such as these, group dynamics are a factor. You may experience interpersonal drama as the natural course. Heck, you may even participate in it. Some people think competition is good, that it breeds character, dedication, and an overall positive, can-do attitude. I don’t agree. I think it usually brings out the worst in people. The problem is that folks get into the mindset there is only so much success to go around, a grand lie if there ever was one. And really, a high-stress creative environment can only exacerbate insecurities, anxiety, and small-minded thinking. It’s entirely possible you’ll experience nothing of the sort during your time at an MFA, but then again, you may find yourself crawling through a big stinking pile of it.
The other thing worth mentioning is that if you as a writer are prone to overwork or burnout, you may consider getting a certificate or simply attending a really good writing workshop or two. There are plenty of those to go around, and they don’t require tens of thousands of dollar to attend, either. I wouldn’t trade my time at Western for anything. Really, I wouldn’t. The experiences I had, the people I met (even the ones I ended up disagreeing with), shaped me in unexpected ways. Pressure cooker situations can make you better at what you do, but they can also cause a slowdown or even complete stoppage of your natural creative drive. Ultimately, this is what happened to me, though luckily, writer’s block is perfectly surmountable given enough time and patience.
As I’m sure you well know, creative writing can be pretty difficult, especially when we as writers are put into situations or contracts under which we’re required to maintain constant output. But writing isn’t like most other creative professions, in that it doesn’t just require your creativity and imagination, but also your intellect and higher reasoning skills. To string one word after another, continuously, until a fully realized narrative emerges, that’s pretty hardcore, right? So again, if you are prone to periods of overwork or burnout, if you make a habit of pushing yourself too hard or of not being forgiving or gentle enough to allow yourself time to recoup your creative energy, an MFA may not be for you.
Yes, you can teach with one, and that may be the most useful outcome. Not every writer wants to teach. In fact, I think most don’t. But if you’ve been doing this a while, I’m sure you’ve also recognized the very real truth that superstar authors are few and far between, and even fewer simply got lucky on their paths, as opposed to agonizing over their craft for years and years before anyone showed even the slightest interest. So to teach or not to teach? Well, a paycheck is better than an empty bank account under any circumstance, and since reality is (unfortunately) rather persistent, you may find you need to pay some bills before your incredible new urban fantasy novel sees the light of day.
At the time I attended Western State, the school’s Genre Fiction program was still pretty new, and as such, the faculty still had a few things to iron out. This led to an uneven learning experience at times, but as far as a basic academic progress went, I always felt satisfied. Some of my classmates had a bad habit of complaining about certain aspects of our coursework, but I was always of the opinion that you get out what you put in. In other words, I never even bothered second-guessing individual assignments or their value. I simply treated them as writing challenges, opportunities for me to have fun and excel. And I loved to write, so I committed myself to telling the best stories I could, and at least in the short term, it paid off for me.
One thing is certain, if you go into an intense learning environment with a bad attitude, you’re already behind the eight ball. I had a great attitude, though my somewhat imbalanced mental health picture (at the time I suffered from some pretty bad depression) set me apart from my classmates, in that I occasionally needed extra help and time in order to get my work done. My teachers were more than willing to accommodate me, and thanks to them, I graduated on time and with (mostly) straight A’s. I used that lovely piece of frameable paper to bounce myself into some editing and freelance work, but if I’m being honest, sustained productivity become an issue after that. Perhaps I was just dog tired. Can you really blame me?
When all is said and done, the choice to pursue an MFA comes down to what you value and what you think you can accomplish on your own. An intense, focused experience like this can make you a better writer. I know it made me better. But it’s also true that you can get better on your own, through dedication, persistence, and a healthy work ethic. I think I was open and ready for something that allowed me to hone my abilities in a safe, nurturing, and output-driven environment. I’d like to thank all the faculty and staff at Western State Colorado University for their generosity of spirit and willingness to pass on their considerable knowledge and expertise. Don’t forget, folks, this is your story. Tell it how you want to sell it!
Until next time!
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Video Games – Music – Entertainment – So Much More!
Want to be sure not to miss any of Jeff’s Pep Talk segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress.
The exciting news this week is, Delilah is now available in digital format! It’s something I’ve been waiting for for quite a while, so of course, I am ecstatic. But, something many aspiring authors may not realize is that publication isn’t the end of the road. No, it’s actually just the beginning of a new chapter in the book of writing, this one titled Sell that Book.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with my road to publication, I started Delilah back in 2012, when I entered the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program at Western State Colorado University. The assignment given by my instructor, Russell Davis, was to write an excerpt in a genre outside our comfort zone. I was assigned to write in western genre, and low and behold, I found not only am I good at it, but I like writing western. Four years later, that small excerpt, grew into a 60,000 word western novel which I’ve been trying to find a publisher for over the past year.
You see, writing the book, while a great accomplishment unto itself, is only half the battle. It doesn’t do any good to write a story, if no one ever reads it. In order for that to happen, the book must be published, and while I could self-publish, (I had considered it), I held out hope of finding a publisher, and in the end my persistence paid off.
So, now that I got Delilah published, with the help of Dusty Saddles Publishing, I must get the word out through marketing and promotion. I must get people to read, and maybe more important, write reviews.
Reviews are where it’s at these days. According to Amazon, reviews are how you get your book promoted, and I just read somewhere that Amazon has recently increased the number of reviews needed for them to promote your book, from thirty-five to fifty or one hundred.
The question is, where do I get reviews from? Although I do honest reviews here, on Writing to be Read, I don’t know many other bloggers who do. So, it comes down to appealing to you, my readers, to buy Delilah, read it and then go onto Amazon and Goodreads, (Delilah will be listed there soon -another thing I still need to do), and leave a review.
If you are willing to go to the trouble of doing all that, I thank you, but I also ask that you leave a review that is honest. While I would love you to leave a review which sings Delilah’s praises, I want it only if it is heartfelt. If you see problems with my story, I need to know what they are, in order to improve my writing of future books, so I am asking for honest criticism, if you are kind enough to leave a review at all.
In the end, it’s up to you, the reader, how successful Delilah, or any book, will be. So, buy the books you want to read, (which I hope includes my debut novel), and be kind. Leave an honest review.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.
Like this post? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted.
Trouble Returns, by Nancy Oswald, is the third book in her Ruby and Maude Adventure children’s series. The series are historically based stories about Ruby, an independent and headstrong young girl, and her ice cream loving donkey, Maude, and their adventures in Cripple Creek in the late 1890s. I had the pleasure of reviewing the first book, Rescue in Poverty Gulch, in which Maude is donkey-napped and Ruby risks her own life to save her beloved friend and companion.
Ruby must face her greatest fears in Trouble Returns, when she must face the villain, Jake Hawker, who’s she’s tangled with twice before, in a court of law, when she testifies against him. But she finds her fears very real when he breaks out of jail and comes after Ruby and her friends and family. Can Ruby triumph over Jake Hawker for a third time?
Trouble Returns is crafted to be a stand alone book as well, making me aware enough of events in the second book, Trouble on the Tracks, that I was able to easily follow the full story line, although I hadn’t read the second book, without giving me a bunch of block exposition. As you might guess from the titles, books two and three feature an additional character, who steals readers’ hearts: Trouble, Ruby’s lovable little cat.
I found this story to be a delightfully entertaining story which was skillfully written. Oswald has crafted another story that readers of all ages won’t want to put down. She’s done her research and the historic details are wonderful. Another plus for me was the fact that it is available in paperback, because I’m an old fashioned type of gal. I give Trouble Returns five quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read, and she never charges for them. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.