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.  

How Can I Level Up in My Work?

Quoth Anonymous: Sometimes people refer to “turning a corner” in the writing of their fiction, like they’re leveling up. What does that mean and how do I do it on purpose?

Wow, Anonymous, you’ve eerily picked the exact best moment to ask this question because fifteen years ago on this very day, I submitted a story that was the beginning of my OWN turning point.

What a coincidence!

“Turning a corner” is when your skill takes a significant leap forward that feels sudden but almost certainly isn’t. It means that you’ve realized something about how you work and learned to apply it in a way that produces a noticeable increase in “quality,” whatever that means.

Maybe the work is simply better written or easier to follow or more personal or filled with deeper feeling.

With luck, you’ll turn corners several times in your writing career or at the very least, you’ll make a long slow arc toward improving with every new work. But sometimes it feels like it comes suddenly, and that’s what we’re talking about today.

What’s required for a turn? Let me share my experience:

A punch in the face that destroys your creative complacency…

On the first day of critiquing manuscripts at my six-week Clarion experience in 2006, one of my submission stories was among the first we discussed. We hadn’t had time yet to write onsite, so this was one that had gotten me ACCEPTED to Clarion in the first place.

That story received a critical curb-stomping so savage that its broken teeth are still probably lodged in the carpet of that room at Michigan State. I’d like to think it had a little to do with nervous people trying to show their editing chops, but my story may well have been the cosmic affront to all literature as everyone said it was.

Enter the Hexagon! Twenty writers enter…and twenty writers leave, slightly less happy.

After my twenty-one peers had each had their say, all I could do was thank them in a warbling voice and say that I was here at Clarion exactly to write better stories.

That night, I walked around campus embarrassed and angry. For the previous decades, I’d been told by dozens of teachers that I was a good writer, not because I was a good writer but because I was a better writer than their many students who didn’t give a shit about writing. I’d taken their praise literally and managed to learn nothing to improve.

I’d needed more punches in the face and fewer pats on the back.

(Not literally. I got plenty from my father.)

…followed by a dark night of the soul…

This step may be optional if, unlike me, you’re not a neurotic mess trying to justify his existence on the Earth by entertaining other people.

I spent time in the MSU library writing in my journal about whether I was meant to write or whether I should take the hint and go on to something I was better at. Unfortunately, years of caring mostly about writing meant this was probably the best bet I had.

Unsure what to do, I called my friend Jason to give him an update on how Clarion was going. On my way to Michigan, I’d stopped to see him and some other friends in South Carolina and showed them some photos of an abandoned mental asylum I’d broken into earlier in the year. It had been a creepy place.

Yes, that’s an actual picture.

Jason listened to my dilemma and said, “Next time those people give you shit, look around that room and ask yourself which of them has the sack to break into an abandoned fucking mental asylum. Then consider THEIR advice.”

Which, yeah, put some things in context for me. No, not to ignore them…just to remember that I was the one with skin in this game, and I had to choose what I took on as criticism.

Really, this phase of your turn is figuring out if you’re willing to commit to doing what it will take to improve your work.

…and then an honest assessment of what you’re doing badly…

I suspect a lot of new writers get so hung up on whether they’re “good” or “bad” at writing in general that they don’t consider the many gradations between. It’s easier to throw up our hands and say we suck than to look at our work page by page to see exactly how.

Luckily, this guy was around to tell me EXACTLY what was wrong with my work.

When you refocus from yourself as the problem (“I don’t deserve to be a writer”) toward the story as the problem (“What can I fix here?”), that’s when a turn can happen.

For me, the issues my peers detected (and that I agreed with) seemed to be that I was too quick to avoid feelings with humor, my narration was too cold and mean, there wasn’t enough detail to feel like a story, and I couldn’t plot to save my life.

That sounded about right to me.

…and what you’re doing well…

In my journal at the library, I grudgingly allowed that I was pretty good at dialogue and at imitating people’s voices. Oh, and insinuating stories for readers out of fake found documents.

…so you can consciously practice to improve.

I call this stage “Fix It or Fuck It”: are you going to make changes to your technique, or are you going to write around them?

I did a little of both. I began to emphasize emotion, perception, detail, and experience in my stories, and I also experimented with voices that weren’t exactly like mine to tell them idiosyncratically.

Plotting…I let that ship sail. But not immediately, because I wrote four more terrible stories at Clarion where I tried to follow the advice we were getting about structure. For my last story, I just gave up and submitted a fake set of theater reviews for the apocalypse written by Dorothy Parker.

The feeling when I submitted that story was, “Fuck it. I’m going to keep doing what I do, only better each time,” which was Kelly Link’s advice to me during the last two weeks of the workshop.

It helped, too, that I wrote the story for a very specific audience, taking on the empathy to entertain her specifically. That became another principle in my new practice: imagining what an audience would find interesting or pleasurable or scary.

On a thunderstorm-y afternoon, my story was the last for critique…and almost everyone seemed to love it. Perhaps that had less to do with the quality of the story than their relief that I hadn’t wasted six weeks of our time, but I was happy either way.

That was the story that started the turn. I mean “started” very slightly, like maybe 5 degrees. But after that, I sold every story I wrote forever and ever.

No, alas, I didn’t. It took some more experimenting, and eventually there were two other stories as part of that turn toward what a “Will Ludwigsen story” would look and sound like. Some would call that “finding a voice,” which is not a term I like to use because each story has its own voice.

What I say instead is that sooner or later, we each find the kind of story that we can pull off semi-reliably because we’ve found ways to accentuate what we’re good at and to fake what we’re not.

That’s what a turn is: realizing that you can control what you write and then finding the next level of faking how to do it.