Make Your Own MFA in Creative Writing: How to Build a DIY Curriculum

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make your own MFA

Is it possible to make your own MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing? Probably not, but we outline a plan that will make you a better writer if you stick with it long enough.

Let’s get one thing out of the way upfront: like most pursuits, creative writing CAN be taught (if you’ve got the inclination in the first place and the dedication to learn, of course).

Would a great writer choose to read something from their middle-school diary during their next book launch? Probably not — unless they’re taking part in a Mortified event.

Since those embarrassing days in the 7th grade, that writer expanded their vocabulary and widened their tonal range. They learned how to tell more compelling narratives and dove deeper into character. They channeled the highs and lows of real life in their prose or poetry. They learned — from life, from teachers, from mentors, from books, from themselves — how to be a better writer.

We should stop asking MFA programs around the country to defend IF writing can be taught (if it can be learned, it can be taught — or at least fostered) and concentrate on the HOW and WHAT.

The HOW and WHAT is what you’d be paying big bucks for, after all.

Replicating the MFA experience without the giant price tag

But what if you can’t pay big bucks, even for a Low Res program? What if you can’t quit your job or uproot your family to attend a program far from home? Can you, with sufficient effort, create your own MFA curriculum?

Well, I can’t promise you the same exact experience, the same level of community, or the same results — but I’ll outline a plan that will definitely make you a better writer if you stick with it long enough.

The key elements of an MFA program that you’ll create for yourself

The idea is pretty simple. Determine what the most crucial elements of an MFA are — then DIY (do it yourself)!

Mentorship

One of the obvious selling-points of an MFA is that you get frequent face-to-face encouragement, criticism, and instruction from established writers. But colleges aren’t the only place to find mentors. Great writers live in the real world too — and they need friends just like the rest of us.

The internet makes it easy to meet your heroes. See if you can strike up a conversation. Chances are good they’ll be too busy to critique much of your work simply out of the goodness of their hearts, but you might be lucky enough to get feedback on a short story or poem. You might also offer to pay for their mentorship. Some tax-free cash for an hour of reading and discussion? Sounds good to me.

If you end up hiring a professional writer or editor to critique your work, it’ll usually be at a fraction of the cost of the masters degree. Also, check out non-degree programs like The Attic Institute and The Writers Studio where you can get great one-on-one feedback from respected writers.

The workshop

Peer-editing. Workshop. Critique session. Whatever you call it, another one of the obvious benefits to an MFA is the structured writing group. But you can start your own writing group or join an existing one.

Many MFA workshops will meet once or twice a week — and that can be a lot to schedule for working folks. However, it’s worth noting that in lots of MFA programs, you don’t get to bring new work to every workshop class. Sometimes you have to wait through 3 or 4 classes for your turn to come around again. So by keeping your writing group small (4-6 members), each member could present something new at each meeting — which means that if you schedule a 3 hour session every 2 weeks, you’re on track with the MFA schedule. Plus, your group can meet year round!

Check out our article, “Top 5 Tips to Starting Your Own Writing Group” for more information.

Time and deadlines

MFA programs require that you engage in the practice of writing, scrapping, revising, risking, bottoming-out, and beginning again — almost constantly. It takes time to write that much. Lots of time. Plus, you’re usually on some kind of deadline which keeps the tap flowing even when the “creative” part is in question. Being forced to write and write and write without the expectation that all your writing be brilliant, and having the time to do it — that’s a valuable experience.

If you’ve got other responsibilities, you might not be able to throw everything else out the window and just read and write for 80 hours a week. But anything you CAN do will make you a better writer. Set your own time aside for writing each day. Give yourself deadlines. Fit it into your overall life schedule, of course, but don’t skimp! Whatever time you can spare. Then do it every day, every week, every month, for two years — or heck, for the rest of your life.

Exposure

Another perk of the MFA is that you’re surrounded by people who love writing. Your teachers will give you reading lists of assigned books and essays. Your peers will be recommending their favorite writers. And you’ll all be experiencing the warm buzz of a lit love-fest.

But you don’t have to be in an MFA to learn from the greats. Instead, create your own syllabus. Look at reading lists that already exist online. Ask other writers for their “must-read” suggestions. Then crack those books and get to work.

Professional preparation

MFAs can’t promise you a life of literary achievement or job placement, but it’s a good environment to get advice on the publishing path, giving compelling readings, networking, finding a teaching gig, fellowships and grants, etc.

However, if you’re looking for that kind of info, much of it is online for free. Plus, you could always choose 30 of your favorite writers and send them an email with your questions. If even 5 of them responded, that’d be a treasure trove of wisdom.

The X Factor

From my experience in MFA workshops, I can say that there is a certain X Factor that kicks in. I felt like I was in the middle of something great and mysterious, something thrilling and challenging. You talk shop over drinks with your fellow writers after class. You forge closer relationships with teachers that you really respect. You go to readings. You give readings. You’ve got easy access to the libraries and writing resources. And on and on.

But that feeling is fleeting because it relies on external circumstances: the school, the teachers, the students, etc. You don’t want to feel the magic and buzz of the literary life for just those two concentrated years, right?

I think if you can make all of the things mentioned above a daily or weekly habit, it’s possible to bring a little of that X Factor into your everyday life; then you can carry that with you forever.

What do you think? Can you replicate the experience of an MFA on your own? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Chris Robley
Chris Robley is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."

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