Tiny Writers’ Conference, Week 1: Improving Your Craft Without an MFA

Last week, I was reflecting on the various writers’ conferences I’ve presented at over this past year or two, and was thinking about just what it is that writers want to learn when they travel to these kinds of events. When I think about the questions writers ask me, whether in formal Q&A sessions or even in the hall after a class, I realize that there are a handful of themes I hear over and over again.

I decided that, if NPR can have a Tiny Desk Concert (What? You don’t know about Tiny Desk Concerts? Please watch this fabulous set with the Pixies immediately so that you may join the civilized world), I could throw my own Tiny Writers’ Conference, answering one of these greatest-hits questions here on my blog during each week of December.

To kick off the month, I’m going to start with a question I often hear from writers who are already busy in professions unrelated to creative writing:

I don’t have the time or the desire to get an MFA; how can I work on the craft of writing without going back to school?

This is a question I feel quite strongly about for two reasons. First, I often hear people give writers absolutely terrible advice in response (“don’t worry about the craft; just write for yourself!” or “get some friends together and write in coffee shops!” Please.), and second, I think it’s important to answer this question as neither an evangelist for nor an opponent of the MFA system. (I myself have an MFA, and I’m glad to have earned it. I needed that level of education in order to truly learn the craft of poetry—I wasn’t able to pick up on technical features of poems simply from reading them on my own. However, I recognize that I am not representative of all humanity—plenty of people do brilliant work without benefit of a degree program.)

So what do you do to improve your craft if you aren’t pursuing an MFA? Here are my three top suggestions:

Get Involved in a Local Writers’ Center. 

Here in Seattle, for example, we have an excellent resource in the Richard Hugo House.

The courses at Hugo House are taught by some of the best writing instructors in the country—many of whom are the core faculty at nearby MFA programs, incidentally. These aren’t goofy courses intended to “inspire” you or any such nebulous thing; these are craft-based courses that are intended to substantively improve your writing.

If you’re not in the Seattle area, you’re not out of luck. Check out Grub Street, The Loft, and The Attic for other great courses across the country.

Do Your Homework. 

Writing poems in isolation isn’t good for much except for staying exactly as good a poet—no better and no worse—than you are now. If you want to improve your work, you’ve got to study the craft. Some of my favorite texts on poetry are Western Wind, The Practice of Poetry, Ordinary Genius, and An Exaltation of Forms. These are books I’ve returned to over and over in my writing life, and I always find something new and practical in each of them.

Reach Out. 

Is there a working poet whose work or career you really admire? Take a look at that writer’s website. He or she may well offer paid manuscript consultations. If you have a manuscript you’ve been working on, and you are interested in making it strong enough for eventual publication, consider contacting that writer and seeking his or her expert opinion. I know, I know. Many of us writerly folks are introverts, and the idea of talking to the Quasi-Famous, Big Deal Poet can be daunting. And of course, that poet might say no, or perhaps “not now,” but you’d be surprised at how many times a writer will say yes to helping you improve your work. Be prepared to pay a fee, however; we all know that writers have to pay their bills, too.

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