Before the hate mail launches look, I don’t think for a moment that I just launched any kind of crippling blow to the oh-so-explosive, for-profit industry of MFA Programs in Creative Writing. And I do believe there are certainly some classes, courses, teachers, and so on who very much offer something awesome. However, yesterday I blogged about how I went into the local branch of my library for the first time in a wee bit too long and realized (for the 10,000th time) that these guys are offering the moon. Free. Absolutely free.
See, to be a writer, one must write. No school can get you to do that; it’s all self-determination. And if you are self-determined enough to actually put your butt in a chair and write a book then you also probably have the self-determination to actually read a book, as well. Therefore, being that an MFA program could cost as much as 50K I say, “Take a shot at reading all the books on writing that your local library offers and then see if you still need/want an MFA. At worst, you’ll be the most well-prepared student ever to set foot in an MFA classroom. At best, I just saved you a couple of years and a heck of a lot of money.”
Actually, it was the library that saved you the cash-o-la because they are offering a free creative writing class right now – an awesome one, too – as taught by some of the best professors of writing of all time. (And did I mention it’s at zero cost to the student – above sweat equity, that is? Just want to make sure I cover that.)
Norman Mailer, Stephen King, Anne Lamott, Orson Scott Card, Albert Zuckerman, Lajos Egri, Aristotle, Robert McKee, Lew Hunter, Linda Seger, Ray Bradbury, Christopher Vogler… need I go on? I just listed a dozen writing teachers and could offer you a dozen more in a heartbeat. If you haven’t read these authors you probably aren’t well-enough prepared to enter an MFA program and if you have read all these authors you will probably find that an MFA program’s best offering to you is workshop space where you can have other aspiring writers read and critique your work (while you do the same for them).
It’s called a writer’s group. For that try Craigslist. Or Google. Or a local library. Some branches even offer those as well.
It’s not that there is no value in “the lecture hall”. But so many people feel they have to drop out of their life, take on zillions of dollars in student loans and spend a coupla years on a college campus to learn what is essentially quite learnable with a touch of gumption and a willingness to return books without incurring too many late fees.
Now, could it also not be argued that any other major offered by a university is also thus available in the same manner? Yes, it could. And yes, it is. However, a college degree has weight in the paper. Filling out a job application and having a college diploma trumps not having one 9 times out of 10. Engineer, lawyer, doctor, accountant, teacher, architect, economist, hedge fund manager, the list goes on and on. But in the world of book publishing, a degree from Oxford, a PhD from Harvard plus a papal coronation of meritorious achievement from (dare I say it) Iowa at best will get you to the top of the slush pile. Degrees mean practically nothing in the world of publishing; having some sort of literary chops does and acquiring those through the study of fiction writing can be had at no cost to those with the fire in their belly.
And to those who do not have the fire in their belly, chances are probably slim to none that they will ever see the publication of book #2 (even if they manage to bang out a book #1) because to be a writer one has gotta have some kinda hunger. Save the cash, support your local library and go get a free, high quality education.
Matter of fact, in preparation for my next book, I just decided to take a few courses on the always available schedule myself. Next up, a class on Scene and Structure from Jack Bickham, a guy who published more than 80 novels in his lifetime.
I say save your money, value your time and get a library card. And if that 50K is really burning a hole in your wallet, go ahead and donate it to the local library… they sure could use the support these days.