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.  

Should I Major in English?

Quoth at least five students from every semester I taught: I want to be a writer. Should I major in English?

(Or, the heartbreaking variant, “I switched my major to English because of you!”)

Despite what generations of angry blue-collar fathers have told their first-generation college children, a degree in English isn’t necessarily a vow of poverty. I’m doing okay with mine (though I supplement it with skills in programming and design), and I know plenty of people with STEM degrees who are struggling to find work because physics is even less relevant than literature for most businesses.

The days of a one-to-one correspondence between a degree and a job (with a few exceptions like medicine, law, and accounting) are long gone, if they ever existed. Now your main hope is to convince a potential employer that you chose your degree intentionally to train yourself for a grand, specific, and most importantly profitable purpose.

“Yes, I selected my major in English because I’ve dreamed all my life about writing mortgage software documentation, and my ability to parse The Faerie Queene serves only the purpose of better understanding Truth-in-Lending statements.”

(I think English majors are better at that because they’ve read and written a lot more bullshit. STEM people are all hung up on the truth.)

But 99% of the students who asked me this question didn’t care if the degree would make them attractive to employers. They wanted to know if it would make them better writers.

And the answer is it probably won’t.

What will make you a better writer:

  • Writing a lot, particularly on demand without waiting for inspiration or even something to say.
  • Receiving feedback from competent people.
  • Deliberately analyzing your own writing weaknesses and correcting them with practice.
  • Reading the kind of books or stories you want to write. Not, as in my case, 17th century Restoration drama, which I somehow took two courses in at UF.
  • Demystifying writing as something that is made by deliberate action, something that can be practiced and hacked, not granted by the gods or solely the result of “talent.”

Whatever you study (either formally or not) needs to put you in the way of writing…but not just any writing.

You have to be careful with studying English because often, you’re learning about literature instead of writing, studying the circumstances in which it was made or the socioeconomic conditions it represents or the psychological issues it shows or the vagaries of accidental meaning it performs.

You can’t, alas, take apart a story and learn to write it by analyzing its conditions of creation any more than you can reverse-engineer a Porsche by studying Weimar Germany.

Even if your literature degree requires tons and tons of writing as many do, the type of writing is very different than what people ordinarily want to read. A well-written academic paper (probably 10%) is structured more like a legal argument, providing evidence and drawing conclusions from the text instead of using the text to prove some pet theory of culture.

If you like to approach literature with a scientific curiosity and open-mindedness without an ax to grind, then the academy definitely needs you.

It’s possible, of course, to major in creative writing. That will put you in the way of writing things that are closer to an audience, but even then, many programs and professors make writing into something precious and dramatic and important, which is the last thing you need.

What you need, more likely, is a cigar-chomping editor who thinks that all words can be summoned and rewritten nearly on demand. You’re more likely to meet that kind of person in a journalism or communications program.

You have to make writing something that isn’t mysterious and strange to you. It has to lose a little of its magic so you can imbue it with your own. That’s the tightrope you’ll walk, taking it seriously but not too seriously, loving your words but not too much.

Many of the English majors in my classes were too paralyzed by creating LITERATURE to be loose enough to get conversational on the page; they knew too much about how hard it is and how much every word means…all things you shouldn’t think about until later.

The other majors tended to approach fiction with a beginner’s mind, sort of flouncing through on a lark.

Personally, if I had it to do over again, I might consider studying advertising or marketing because those are forms of writing that require an awareness of audience that I think is lacking in most writing and literature programs. Say what you will about the ethics of those professions, but they are certainly focused on obtaining an effect from people.

Which at the end of the day is what writing is all about, even at its most self-expressive.

My English degrees taught me a lot about Gothic literature, the 18th century, the 19th century, critical theory, Edgar Allan Poe, the Harlem Renaissance, and Oscar Wilde…all of which I’m deeply grateful for, though I didn’t have to pay for those experiences. My friend William has read more Shakespeare than I have (almost all of it) and he works in a convenience store.

The real risk of an English degree is knowing more about the documenting of life than the living of it. With the right attitude, you can graduate knowing both, but you have to be the captain of your own education.

Which you’d have to do with any other degree.

Seriously, just major in whatever you want, write what you want, read a bunch of it, and sometimes type in a chapter from a book you love and notice how it works.

That’ll put you ahead of 90% of English majors, including me.