A friend of mine from my MFA Program emailed me over the weekend, which I'll just add a quick aside and tell you that is one of the biggest benefits of an MFA Program. A writing community. No matter where you're writing, you'll need a community of likeminded people to act as a writing network (who is taking submissions), a social network, and a soft place to land when you get one more rejection. But I digress.
My friend is a charming southern writer with an incredible wit and an amazing voice in his creative nonfiction writing. And like most writers, he's stressed that the agent/editor process is so stinking slow. He asked for advice, which if you haven't figured it out, I'm pretty happy to dole out in long missives, but he also asked if I would introduce him to my agent. Here's my long-winded answer to his questions on querying, agents, and submissions:
The techniques I suggested to my friend will work for you once you finish a project and start hunting a publisher or agent. But there's more here than just how to find an agent. Writing is a solitary practice, and for some of us, that's reason enough to write, but even the introverts among us need to build a tribe of creative people as part of their writing community. My friend who emailed this week has written reference letters for me, let me know when there was a job opening at his university, and critiqued my cover letter and CV. We help each other, because that's what communities do.
Maybe publishing wouldn't be so hard if we worked together rather than wandering around the publishing wilderness alone.
A writer does the same. We tear things apart to figure out the how and why, so we can duplicate the techniques in our own writing. Reading is the primary means of learning to write, which is why it makes me sad when new writers tell me they "don't read." I typically sic Stephen King on their heretic asses:
Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. (King)
Reading as a writer is a good talent to have, as reading is the sole training ground for writers. You don't have to have a background in "how to write fiction," you don't have to have an undergraduate degree in Literature or an MFA in Creative Writing in order to be a writer. You just need to start as a reader.
But as often as English teachers or writing professors or well-meaning friends tell you to "read like a writer," most of them aren't as explicit at what they mean by that. Some call it close reading, because you're reading very carefully, but I like the phrase read like a writer, because it gives reading a purpose. I'm reading like a writer so that I can become a writer (or a better writer).
Mike Bunn, in his essay "Read Like a Writer," says that
When you Read Like a Writer (RLW) you work to identify some of the choices the author made so that you can better understand how such choices might arise in your own writing. The idea is to carefully examine the things you read, looking at the writerly techniques in the text in order to decide if you might want to adopt similar (or the same) techniques in your writing. (Bunn)
Before we know what to write, we need to know how to write, and the how is reading like a writer. Asking questions, annotating, figuring out how a writer accomplished a certain technique. Like the seamstress, we are taking apart a shirt so that we can use it as a pattern for making our own shirt.
Mimicry is part of the learning process. In middle school I wrote a noir detective story my teacher said sounded "borrowed." Nevermind that her destructive commentary became that negative voice in my head (and most writers have them). The point is that I started at a point of mimicry, but I grew past it. I learned the rules so I knew when, where, and how to break them effectively. I still read like a writer, and I'm reading a book a week (or more). I read across the card catalog: fiction and nonfiction, literature and genre fiction like romance, mystery, thrillers, women's fiction, and just about any genre but horror (sorry Stephen King). Speaking of Stephen King, he continues the quote about the value of reading with the following:
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in … Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway" (King).
Reading is an invaluable part of a writer's toolbox. In fact, it may be THE essential tool, but only if you're reading like a writer. So what does that mean? Check out Mike Bunn's article, published free as part of an OER (Open Education Resource), for specific, concrete ideas on what it means to read like a writer. Also, see the video below on how to annotate as you read.
“Dear Professor Skaggs,” a recent post on social media started. The writer was inquiring about MFA programs and was concerned about her age and the actual value of an MFA degree. First, I assured her that age has nothing to do with literary success.
One of my creative cohort in my MFA program was a 22-year-old when she started, the youngest person ever accepted into the program, straight out of her undergraduate degree. She is talented, driven, and will likely be a PhD before she’s 30. But she is by no means representative of our group, which skews older with many looking for a retirement sideline rather than a life’s vocation, and many of us in between those two diverse bookends. Neither goal is wrong, in and of itself, and none of these demographic groups are better served by the MFA.
Writing, in fact, is democratic, and does not discriminate by age or other demographic detail. When you look at when an author is first published, there is no statistical “perfect” age for writing.
One example of writers starting after forty is Lee Childs who writes the Jack Reacher novels. Childs has a unique perspective on writing, in that writers mature with age and have more depth. He says writing is the “ideal career to start later in life.”
Agatha Christie, started much earlier, writing poetry, and earning literary awards, as a child. “But it was her sister’s challenge to write a detective story that would later spark what would become her illustrious career.” She became a published novelist at the age of 26 (“How Christie Wrote”).
Stephenie Meyer has sold more than 85 million copies of her book Twilight. She was 35, so nearly a decade older than Christie, and yet, wildly successful in her field. Her inspiration is quite different as well. She wasn’t challenged into writing a novel, she dreamed it. “Once a stay-at-home mom, Stephenie says the idea for Twilight came to her in a dream.”
JK Rowling didn’t dream her inspiration. She waited for it, specifically while waiting for a train “traveling from Manchester to London King’s Cross … Over the next five years, she began to plan out the seven books of the series” (“JK Rowling Biography”). The first Harry Potter was published when she was 32, and the last when she was 42.
Bukowski was 51 and Laura Ingalls Wilder was 64. Writing knows no limitations of age or experience, but that wasn’t the writer’s only concern in her message to me.
Her post continued, “I am considering applying to MFA Creative Writing programs, knowing that lots of folks think it's not a worthy degree.” She’s worried that the study of writing is a waste, a frivolous degree. In respect to the merits of an MFA, I answered,
I'm not one who believes the MFA is without merit, but I think you need to go into it knowing what your expectations are and how you can achieve them through the program. A big part of most MFA programs is close reading, which means a big chunk of your time is spent reading, studying, and writing about the work of writers in your genre to learn what is effective or ineffective. On top of that you have your creative writing element, plus some programs require a critical thesis in addition to the creative thesis. It is definitely hard work. There are pros and cons.
I went into the MFA to become a better writer, and I believe that element was effective, but I was also working (teaching) and raising kids, so I exhausted myself and it took some time to recover creatively, but I met wonderful people who will remain part of my writing network for life, and I studied under some amazing writers. It really is what you make of it.
When we enter into an MFA program, we go into it knowing that not all of us 22-year-old wunderkinds. We’ve had to work jobs, endure hardships, and reclaim ourselves before we chose to write.
There is no right time to start writing, as long as you start.
Food for thought if you are in or considering an MFA: Why are you in an MFA program? What do you hope to achieve? How much time, energy, and creativity are you willing to expend?
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Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.