The Will Ludwigsen Broke-Ass Writer’s MFA Program

Quote Too Broke: I’m a pretty disciplined guy and I do some writing before or after work almost every day, but I feel like I’m missing something that maybe I could get from a workshop or MFA. The problem is that I can’t afford either one. What do you suggest for people kind of striking out on their own?

As much as I enjoyed getting my MFA and meeting a lot of great mentors and peers, you definitely don’t need one to write well or even to make connections in publishing. In fact, you may have a slight advantage as an autodidact, approaching this world with a sense of blue-collar work ethic instead of pretentiously like I did.

Stonecoast MFA Program
I mean, I got my MFA in a drafty old house in the woods. You can easily find one of your own!

(Really, anything that puts you in the way of writing and getting feedback and then adjusting your work is fine.)

If I were to assign myself what I really needed to learn, this is the program I would follow:  

Your Textbooks

I know you don’t have a lot of money to spare, so we’ll keep this to the essentials:

  • The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch. You could probably just get away with this one if that’s all you can afford, and it is absolutely the best writing handbook I’ve ever found with all the essentials you need.
  • Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dryer, can fill in any gaps you’re feeling in your grammar and usage education.
  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders, could easily be an MFA in itself with some excellent close readings of the Russian masters like Tolstoy that he turns into very practical and useful advice.
  • Working Days, by John Steinbeck, is his journal from writing The Grapes of Wrath. It’s the best book I’ve seen showing the actual feeling and practice of writing.
  • Story First: The Writer as Insider, by Kit Reed, isn’t easy to find but it’s worth the search. Reed’s idea of storytelling as a kind of performance from the inside of a character’s head will revolutionize your work.

That’s it? No, I could list another five or six, but these are what you need to get an intuitive sense of writing one interesting sentence after another. Everything else is great for tips and inspiration, but you can go a long way with these.

Your Assignments

I don’t have a finite length for my ad hoc MFA program, but you should probably count on doing most of this for, well, the rest of your career if you want to keep sharp and on top of it.

  • Read a lot of the kind of work you want to write, and most importantly, notice things about it. Watch how paragraphs are structured, dialogue punctuated, scenes set up, and chapters divided.
  • Read books from time to time that you DON’T think you’d like or want to write. This is one of the best effects of an MFA: finding connections in things you wouldn’t normally seek out.
  • Outline several of your favorite stories or books on both a chapter and scene level. This sounds tedious, but you’ll get a good sense of structure from doing it. Notice what happens in the first third of a work, the middle third, and the final third. Look for the break points between them.
  • Pick several of your favorite stories (up to novella length) and type them in.

    Yes, I said type them in. This is the equivalent of playing piano etudes, making your fingers move in the same way as an author’s. Yes, it’s true that you’re typing in their fifth or tenth draft, but you have to slow down from reading for entertainment and start noticing things like:
    • How do scenes start? What do you need to describe? How do you downshift from general time (“We lived in the Adirondacks for ten years”) to performed time (“One day in August of 1960, I think it was…”)?
    • How are characters introduced and described? How do they sound different?
    • How are paragraphs structured? Is there a main sentence and then supporting ones afterward with more detail?
    • How detailed are the descriptions? Are there a lot of adjectives and adverbs?
    • What do characters DO while they’re talking? What expressions do they make? Do they move and emote as much as you thought they would?
    • How is action handled? What happens during a fight?
    • How much do characters think (internal dialogue)? How much do they act?
    • How do scenes end? What kind of paragraph brings a scene in for a landing?
  • Assign yourself exercises every so often, like:
    • Describe a character in a paragraph.
    • Write a scene opening.
    • Write a chapter opening.
    • Write a perfectly structured paragraph (topic sentence with supporting details).
    • Write a moment of tense dialogue between two people.
    • Write a moment of action.
    • Write a scene or chapter closing.
    • Write as many first lines for random stories as you can in fifteen minutes.
  • Write and complete as many works as you can as intuitively as you can.
    • Plot and plan only as much as necessary.
    • Stick with them to the end, even if you’re worried they are failures.
    • Notice what doesn’t feel right. Talk to yourself in writing about the problem and work it out as best you can.
    • Move on to the next one as quickly as possible.
  • Get feedback for your stories from people who aren’t idiots.
    • Though even an idiot is somewhat useful for pointing out places where you failed to lull them out of noticing any flaws in the story.
    • You can join a writing group, but know that 90% of them are absolute shitshows full of people who will likely quit and who are more interested in you reading their work than in giving you good feedback for yours.
  • Meet other writers and try not to be a dick.
    • You can go a long way with a genuine curiosity and beginner’s mind when you begin to dip your toe into the writing world.
    • You’re going to meet a lot of desperate neurotic people who, like survivors bobbing in the water near the sinking Titanic, will be flailing so hard that they may drown you by accident. Stay away.
    • You will also meet a small number of wonderful people…but unfortunately you won’t know that until you give them a chance.
  • Submit your work to editors.
    • Don’t take their generalized comments (“I didn’t like the beginning”) too seriously.
    • Only accept advice that energizes you with a thrill of recognition.

That may sound like a lot, perhaps more than you’d imagine from a workshop or MFA. There are a lot fewer parties and gatherings for sure, and a lot less entertaining drama about who is falling in love or hate with one another.

It can also be tough to carve out the time to do all of this, but honestly, you have your whole life to do it, right? I mean, yeah, gather ye rosebuds while ye may and all, but there’s nothing to say this has to get done in a year or two years or even ten.

Your Graduation

Live the kind of perceptive and interested life that gives you something to write about.

One enormous advantage of self-education is that you can grab it from anywhere, and if there’s one thing I regret from my lifetime of studying writing is that it feels sometimes like that’s all I really know.

To write well, you have to be the kind of person who notices more than most people and then can package those experiences for others. Part of your job is to be an “alternate seer” and a “life transmitter,” and that means getting your nose out of a book every now and then.

(It doesn’t mean you have to die in an abandoned bus in the woods or go missing with Pancho Villa’s army in Mexico necessarily, either.)

Learn how to cook a meal or fire a gun or sew a quilt. Walk a dog. Talk to weird old men playing checkers and then their smarter wives. Pretend to be a conservative (or a liberal) during a conversation. Believe crazy things long enough to play with them in your head and then let them go.

Be as awake as you can be as often as you can, and never forget that writing is a road, not a destination.  

Shouldn’t This Be…Fun?

Quoth Not Having Fun: A lot of the time, I find the act of writing to be pretty much agonizing. I mean, not like “severe acid burn” agonizing, but at least unpleasant enough to make me not want to do it. I know we’re all told that good things are difficult and work is work, but shouldn’t writing be…more fun than this?

As a person who hasn’t felt like writing this site in over a month, I feel your question all the way to my lazy, duplicitous heart that prefers napping to artistic expression.

I distrust writers who claim to love 100% of their working process, largely because anybody that happy about anything is clearly delusional. I distrust them, but I also envy them for the same reason I envy those animal people in the Richard Scarry books, just showing the fuck up to their jobs all cheerful and shit.

I’m guessing Sergeant Murphy here isn’t on his way to bag and tag a torso in the farmer’s field.

On the other hand, I also distrust (and pity) writers who claim to hate most of their writing process, or who brag that they like “having written” more than writing, or who crow that old canard about cutting open a vein to bleed on their typewriters. They remind me of the blowhards in the office who work on Sundays pretending to save the world.

If I had to guess at a healthy percentage of enthusiasm versus despair in writing, I’d guess that anything less than 70%/30% is edging into the territory where it’s tempting to ask just why the fuck you’re doing it.

You really have two basic options for why you’re writing:

  • You’re doing it BECAUSE you genuinely enjoy the act of writing (playing with language, performing characters, capturing vision and experience), but you’re just stuck on this particular work or in a generalized funk of depression.

OR

  • You’re doing it DESPITE hating writing because the result you are working toward (sharing a vision with the world, telling a hard-won truth, awakening the proletariat) usually makes that hatred worth enduring. Except right now.

In both cases, the issue is often that you have lost contact with why you want to write in GENERAL, or why you want to write this SPECIFIC thing.

Here are two refocusing exercises that I do sometimes to remember what I’m writing for.

Why Are You Writing at All?

  • Think back to when you first had an interest in writing, back when it was “fun.” What made it fun? What were the pleasures you found in it? What reasons brought you back to the page?
  • Find three to five of your OWN favorite works. What did you enjoy about writing each one? What drew you through when they got tricky?
  • What can you do differently to make your work these days more enjoyable? What do you need to remind yourself of each time you write? What do you need to forget or ignore?
  • Are you overly fixated on your slim odds of success in writing? Welcome to the club. Those odds aren’t going to go up by hating it.  

Why Are You Writing This Thing?

Consider the project you’re working on.

  • What drew you to write it in the first place?
  • What does it have in common with some other work that you love? Does it share a style, a setting, a voice, a genre, a structure with something else? Are you experimenting with that?  
  • Who do you want to read and enjoy it (or at least find it provocative)? What feeling do you want to evoke in them?
  • Will it have some impact in the world? Does that matter to you?

(I hasten to point out that the answers to these questions do NOT have to be artistic or noble in any way. You can say, “I want people to laugh so hard at my story that they shit their pants” or “I’m in this to get laid and paid, either order,” and that’s wonderful. Have at it.)

The issue, Not Having Fun, isn’t that writing (like all human effort) can’t always be a frolic in the fields. The issue is that you’re NOTICING and DWELLING on it right now. You’re letting outside factors like fear and doubt and economics overwhelm the tiny spark that got you started in the first place.

Most of writing is a cultivated delusion that your work will matter to someone. If all else fails, you can at least do your best to make sure it matters to you by either enjoying the act or enjoying the possible result.