One of the most common suggestions I make to students in the MFA program is to include more analysis of the works they read. There is a difference between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer (and learning to analyze). An MFA is not simply a writing degree. Of course, MFA students will be writing, and are writing, quite a bit, but the most time is spent on reading and analyzing what other writers have done. Stephen King has famously said "[i]f you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write."
Being a writer is first being a reader, and many (most) writers learn through their reading to become writers. In an MFA program, we focus on the valuable work that reading does to writing skills. During my MFA, I read and wrote critical analyses on three books each month for the first two years of the program. I was numb by the end, but I learned to be quite efficient and effective at reading critically. It has taken me longer afterward to incorporate what I learned into my writing, but that element is equally valuable.
We read critically, we write analytically, and then we reflect on the elements and apply them to our own writing.
Summary (a brief description of the plot) is lower-level learning. Analysis is higher-level (or critical) reading and writing. And genre doesn't matter. From romance to literary fiction, writers need to analyze what other (sometimes great) writers have written.
But all reading is not created equal. When we read for pleasure, hopefully we can actually enjoy the work without picking it apart (I really struggle with this). But when we read as a writer, our job is to pick the work apart. We should read slowly to see the brush strokes of the writer we're studying. We should ask questions of the text.
First, Taylor D wrote:
For most stories, conflict drives the characters and plot while causing readers to become invested in watching it all play out. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the conflict arises during a meal the main character has with someone they had trusted. Over the course of the dinner conversation, the main character comes to feel utterly alone in this strange world, realizing that their allies may be more foe than friend. As the main character attempts to understand how the person he trusted to help him, and who had been doing just that up until this point, he continues the conversation in hopes of discovering what has caused this shift. “He looked at me curiously. ‘Well, then, to put it this way. There are some persons in court who are, in your phrase, in favor with the king, but who do not favor your presence or your mission here’” (Le Guin 15). This sets up the conflict in the book, that the main character is attempting to make changes to a world where he is not welcome.
The way in which Le Guin creates and reveals the conflict, through a conversation between two acquittances, one who has all but betrayed the other, is something I want to explore in my own writing. As the reader, this intrigued me, and I wanted to read more to find out what exactly the main character was doing on this planet that would cause others to not want him there. I found the way the conflict between the two characters gave way to a large conflict in the book and it is something I will attempt in my own writing, using my characters and their conversations as a way to create and reveal conflict, both interpersonal and on a larger plot scale.
Taylor provides a summary of the scene to provide context for the initial conflict, and then looks at evidence from the book (quotes), and finally, discusses how Le Guin's technique impacted her (Taylor) as a reader, and then figures out what exactly she has learned from the reading.
Now, let's look at what Candace M. wrote:
It is only right to look at storytelling elements first because they are vital and occur in all stories, Adeyemi and Rosoff are not exempt. In Children of Blood and Bone, the reader is thrown into the mind of Zeile. We are able to experience her desperation and hope that she will be chosen for the graduation battle, “Its all I can do not to scream. I dig my nails into the marula oak of my staff and squeeze to keep from fidgeting. Beads of sweat drip down my back, but I can’t tell if it’s from dawn’s early heat or from my heart slamming against my chest” (Adeyemi 3). These opening lines quickly and effectively clue the reader into the inner desire of an unnamed character. He or she is nervous yet excited and desiring to be selected for what we will soon know as a graduation combat match. Conflict is presented off the bat at the possibility that our narrator may not be chosen. Adeyemi goes on to mention that our narrator has been passed over for “moon after moon…,” thus verifying what the reader has been led to believe; participation in this match is a must (Adeyemi 3). The excitement of a combat match also aids in creating pacing and suspense.
Here, you can see that Candace's style of analysis is different. She has a back and forth between her discussion and evidence (quotes) from the book. She reaches a conclusion in this paragraph without discussing how she (Candace) will use this information. Later, however, Candace adds her own analysis about her writing:
Although Rosoff’s lack of dialogue is a showstopper, Adeyemi’s use of dialogue to reveal conflict, details about her characters, and bring the fictional land of Orisha to life is nothing to sleep on. Prior to reading Adeyemi’s work I really tried to find equal balance between dialogue and narration, I saw this as a rule to writing. Adeyemi, doesn’t seek to balance dialogue with narration but uses her dialogue in a meaningful way so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. My current project could greatly benefit from a revision that focuses more on meaningful dialogue and narration so that they are being used to drive the plot rather than fill the space.
While most writers won't need or want to write an academic paper analyzing a work of fiction, the act of analyzing is an invaluable tool and can be accomplished while reading. Writers should consider writing techniques as they read them, and then consider how and in what ways the reading and analysis can impact their own writing.
Embrace analysis. It will help set your writing on fire.
ADDENDUM:This kind of analysis also helps writers to critique other writers. Once a writer has torn apart a book by someone like Stephen King, they should have the skillset and vocabulary to help critique and improve the work of their critique partners.
King, Stephen. On Writing. Scribner, 2000.
“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?
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.