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1. Keep an open-mind, but don’t shut out your inner voice. I went into my first semester with the attitude of letting the writing gods and my advisor lead me where they wanted. Though my advisor was fabulous, my release of total control was a sign that I had little faith in myself. I forgot to trust my own instincts. That’s not to say ignore the advice of other writers/critique partners because then there’s no point in inviting in outside opinions. But don’t forget to listen to your gut. Sometimes my advisor caught things that were unfeasible, poorly-hidden backstory, etc. and truthfully, they had been nibbling at my mind already. Just like in a critique group, it’s important to receive feedback, mull it over, and then go forward with what makes sense for you. An MFA program is like having a critique partner on steroids. Toss all that advice into a big colander and sift out what doesn’t resonate, while retaining all the tidbits that lead to aha moments. By the end of my first semester, I learned to differentiate between the two and it was perhaps the most important lesson for me.
2. Be a mad scientist. We rarely give ourselves permission to play. At my advisor’s suggestion, I explored short stories as my out-of-the-box writing experiment during my first semester. I dove into reading short story anthologies and reluctantly tried my hand at composing one. I loved the newness and brevity of the short story form and will continue to force myself to try new things. Whatever you’re afraid of or you think you don’t really know much about, challenge yourself to explore it. Poetry, short stories, non-fiction, or maybe just a different age-range, it’s amazing how sampling something different can improve our overall abilities.
3. Let go of your fears and go there. Sure, you can have an outline or a scene idea that you cling to like grim death, but tell your character’s story as honestly as he/she is begging you to do. I was afraid to touch the pain in my protagonist’s past until this semester. My advisor called me on it. I finally sat at the keyboard, closed my eyes, and went there. It was painful and scary and I was drained as though I’d channeled an otherworldly spirit when the scene was over. I was moved to tears and it felt like a big wound had been ripped open inside me. It was necessary. After months with this character, I finally knew her core and was able to view her world through her eyes, not mine. As writers, our brains are our own worst enemies. The only thing standing between you and your story is your inner editor over-thinking every scene, every action, every word. Don’t be afraid. Let go of your fears and just write. Editing will come later.
4. An MFA is not the only way to improve our craft. Don’t get me wrong. I adore my MFA program like it’s a fated soulmate. But my situation and ability to complete the program is unique to me. I don’t come from a creative writing background and I’m not one of those people who can say, “I’ve been writing stories since I was seven.” I never imagined stepping away from full-time work and taking this huge plunge. In fact, when I first heard about VCFA a few years ago, I distinctly remember thinking there was no way that would ever be me. So I educated myself. Everything I knew about writing prior to starting an MFA program came from reading. A lot. And writing. A lot. And critiquing. And conferencing. And of course, through the free wisdom writers share via the blogosphere. Good writing knowledge is out there.
Without the structure of an MFA program, it takes consistency and a lot of self-discipline to cobble together a do-it-yourself education, but it isn’t impossible. I’ve seen many writers do it and go on to nab an agent and get published. While I’ve learned many new hard skills during my first semester, the vast majority of what I know about writing came from years of self-study, craft books, and exploring the benefits of SCBWI. An MFA is a fabulous experience, but it isn’t a requirement.
YOUR TURN: What are your thoughts on MFA programs or other formal writing training versus self-study? If you have experience with a program, please weigh in on the discussion. If it’s something you’ve considered, we’d love to hear about it. Happy writing!
Marissa Graff is a full-time student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. When she’s not reading or writing, or thinking about reading and writing, she’s spending time with her husband, Crossfitting, or exploring Northern Virginia. Follow her on TWITTER & FACEBOOK for more on her MFA & Writing adventures!
The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults is a low-residency program, meaning you attend lectures and workshop for ten days in January and ten days in July, while working one-on-one with an advisor during the months between.