My MFA thesis is due on Friday. I’ll graduate in August.
In other words, my costs (in time, in money) are already sunk. I made my choice two years ago. But I was thinking about what I’d advise, if someone wanted the benefits of the work of an MFA, but didn’t care about the actual degree.
You don’t have to sink your own costs in the same way I did if you want to be a writer. Of course you don’t. But, you know what? I do think you have to sink some costs. I think that maybe it’s pretty important that you put some skin in the game.
Time is more important than money. Put in the years reading, writing, learning, growing. You can do it with an MFA, but you don’t have to.
If I was going to DIY it, here’s what I’d do.
I’d use this Ray Bradury quote as my guiding light. (I already do, by the way.)
Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens.
Hell. I’d make Bradbury the dean of my makeshift home university. He left writers a blue print for a DIY MFA.
His advice was to read a poem, an essay, and a short story everyday for 1000 days. That’s just about the right amount of time for an MFA. Three-ish years.
Read. A lot.
Many master writers have shared their writing advice. They’re books are like having an incredible faculty of mentors at your fingertips.
Start with these.
Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.
Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity
"Bradbury, all charged up, drunk on life, joyous with writing, puts together nine past essays on writing and creativity…
Stephen King’s On Writing.
On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft
Immensely helpful and illuminating to any aspiring writer, this special edition of Stephen King's critically lauded…
Chuck Wendig’s The Kick Ass Writer.
The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience
The journey to become a successful writer is long, fraught with peril, and filled with difficult questions: How do I…
Lisa Cron’s Story Genius.
Twila Tharp’s The Creative Habit.
Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.
Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.
That should get you started.
In my MFA program, I had to read ten books a month. That’s a good start. Make one of them a book of poetry, one a book of essays, and one a book of short stories. Add a writing craft book. Fill in the rest with at least a novel a week and a couple of children’s books.
Write. A lot.
Just do what the man said. Write every day.
I highly recommend setting a very small goal for yourself. A teeny, tiny goal. Try ten minutes. Write fiction for at least ten minutes everyday for the next 1000 days.
Even if all you do is write one page a day for each of those 1000 days, you’ll have 1000 pages of fiction. That’s three books or so. In ten minutes a day.
Seriously — anything you do everyday for three years, you’re going to get better at. There isn’t a choice in the matter. Write everyday. I’m telling you. It’s like magic.
Build a writing community.
Maybe the greatest benefit of an MFA program is the built in bonus of a deeply connected writing community. You don’t have to shell out $40,000 for a traditional program for that. Just look for the other writers in your vicinity and bring them together.
Join an online writing community — just one that you really become a part of is better than a dozen that you just scroll through. (You know, I highly recommend Ninja Writers. I’m a little biased though.)
Look for an in-person writing group you can join.
Start a monthly writer’s night out. Just invite the writers you know — anyone who’s interested in writing — to have a drink with you one night. Voila.
While we’re on the topic of writing friends — try to develop at least one solid critique partner. I like the site Critique Circle. You can also come to the Ninja Writers Facebook page and let everyone know you’re looking for a critique partner. See who answers.
Don’t ignore opportunities for more traditional learning.
Look for opportunities to learn. Your local community college probably offers non-credit writing courses. You might even be able to sign up for a credited writing class or two. Maybe a workshop.
Consider joining a chapter of a national writing group. I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. In the past, I’ve belonged to Romance Writers of America. There are groups for mystery writers, thriller writers, women’s fiction writers — pretty much every genre you can think of. Pick one and become a member. Get involved.
I also highly recommend conferences. Those same groups often put on some of the best. You’ll meet other writers. You’ll also get access to editors and agents. Sometimes you can pitch your story to them. But most important, you’ll get inspiration that will carry you for months. And they’re big fun. Try to attend at least one a year during your 1000 Day MFA.
I have a couple of free courses you might like. And one that isn’t free, but would take you through a whole year of your 1000 Day MFA. Join the Ninja Writer Teachable School here and check them out.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.