By Hannah Grieco, TWC Instructor
It’s a conversation we have online and in person, on Twitter and at conferences. There are many good reasons to look into MFA programs, and most writers have considered doing so at some point.
We long to dive deeply into our craft, find a like-minded community of writers, and eventually work with a mentor to complete and publish something destined for the New York Times Bestseller list. Or at least to finish that poetry collection! Perhaps most importantly, we want the luxury of time and the obligation to write. To eliminate the excuses and obstacles we frequently use to not write.
But what if we can’t afford the time or money that an MFA requires? Is it possible to reach larger, longer-term writing goals without the structure and support of a university program? Can we avoid an isolated writing life and stagnancy in our craft while still working a day job, paying off our undergrad student loans, or saving for our own kids to attend college?
These are important questions, and the answer to all of them is a resounding yes! Here are some ways to create a flexible, individualized path forward in your own writing:
Online and In-Person Classes
The classes in an MFA program immerse writers in craft, and I often daydream about spending several years engrossed in such a high-stakes literary environment. It sounds exhilarating and inspiring (and also anxiety-provoking). But there are a variety of options outside of the MFA world for classes! The Writer’s Center offers hundreds of workshops, as do local bookstores and other organizations. These a la carte classes cover everything from craft to publishing, at all levels of experience, and they often have successful, well-known authors as instructors!
In addition to flexibility in terms of time and location, selectively choosing classes allows you to focus on exactly what you’re interested in learning. How to structure your novel, learning the form of a sonnet, practicing the art of pitching to freelance publications—you get to choose, rather than following a prescribed path. This is particularly important for those who write in multiple genres or even outside traditional genres.
And one of the best parts of selecting your own classes is that you learn and grow with a large, diverse group of writers. You read and listen to work from writers with a variety of life experiences. This transforms your perspective and forges new pathways in your pieces.
Classes can help everyone. But the work you create is no better, no more impactful, if it’s written on university grounds versus your living room sofa after getting the kids to bed! You don’t need an MFA program to find an exhilarating and inspiring class experience.
Critique Groups and Beta Readers
An MFA program offers an automatic critique group within the structure of its classes. But outside of a program, it’s easy to feel like an island as you attempt to revise and polish your writing. We all need fresh eyes on our work. It allows us to see how our words land, absent the voice inside that knows exactly what we mean, exactly what we’re intending to say.
A critique group is a small gathering of writers who share and respond to each other’s work, usually in a structured format. Groups can meet regularly or more casually, but often follow a similar plan of offering feedback in positive and thoughtful turn-taking. It’s like getting a mini-editing session in person, and it also allows thoughts and perspectives to build upon each other. One person speaks up, another adds to that idea, and all of a sudden we experience a lightbulb moment about the direction our piece can go!
As writers, this helps us learn to take feedback, to not hold our words too precious. Similar “Aha!” moments happen when we swap pieces with beta readers. This allows an even deeper level of reflection in a one-on-one format. Beta reading benefits both parties. As readers, we learn so much from other writers’ choices—both successful and not. This style of critique helps us to learn to be a thoughtful editor for our own work, as well as others’.
I often ask multiple beta readers to help me as I get close to the end of my revisions. My friends are my safety net before submitting! They catch the grammatical mistakes, the structural flaws, the repeated words, and the awkward or unclear phrasing that I miss. I used to find it intimidating to have my errors pointed out, but now I beg for brutal honesty. “Tell me everything,” I say. “I want to make this piece SHINE.”
Writers need a literary home. We need connection, a network of other writers and readers to share with and listen to. No matter how wonderful our spouses, partners, moms, siblings, and dogs—they don’t really understand why we torture ourselves this way.
But other writers understand our process and encourage us when we lose confidence. Yes, an MFA program is full of writers, but luckily, so is a city like Washington, DC. If you live far off in a cabin in the woods, or you just find people nerve-wracking in person, you can still find your community online. You can read other writers’ books, published pieces, and blogs. You can discuss their work and share it with others. You can ask questions and offer your expertise. You can snowball your learning, developing a web of authors to follow and read, your own writing evolving as you grow.
Many people like to criticize Twitter as a toxic echo chamber, but my experience has been far different. I’ve met writer friends from all over the world via Literary Twitter. These are predominantly writers I’ve never met in person, and we now beta read for each other, read and share our stories, and even work together for online literary publications. Barrelhouse, for example, is an online and print journal that offers classes, conferences, writing camps, and a great blog that focuses on authors and opportunities. Its editors regularly tweet, encouraging and celebrating writers at all stages of their writing career.
Writers can write anywhere. You might choose to pursue an MFA, take local classes, meet authors online, or connect with one or two supportive beta readers. No matter your path, find what works for you. Connect with other writers and learn from them. Be generous with your words and time and watch that come back to you tenfold!
Wherever we find our literary community—that becomes our home.