The $10,000 MFA

We talked yesterday about the three things that you’re purchasing when you embark on an MFA program: colleagues, structure, and readers. Is it possible to buy that kind of training without that particular container? I think that it is, but of course it won’t result in those three letters appended to your e-mail signature. Here’s a self-structured recipe for achieving most of what an MFA program can offer, at a quarter or a sixth or a tenth of its cost, in about the same amount of time.

Admissions. You have to demonstrate some degree of credibility to be accepted to even the Childress MFA; we don’t let just any old body in here (though it’s damn close). Before you embark on this course, you need to be published at least a couple of times by somebody who paid you money for it. I started that in 1989, when I was writing freelance architectural and urban design criticism for the East Bay Express at $150 a pop, about once every couple of months. (If I were doing it now, thirty years later, I’d still be getting about $150 per article. Writing for money is a mug’s game. Elmore Leonard said that the most lucrative writing gig was ransom notes.) Why publishing for money as a quality threshold? Because someone whose job is to bring out a publication has decided that your copy was worth space. The classical composer Nico Muhly recently wrote, “The primary task, I feel, is to create a piece of art that is better than the same amount of silence.” That’s the professional editor’s judgment—that your writing is better than some other thing, or nothing, that would fill that same space. So get a couple of bylines to demonstrate your baseline capacity before you get into the more advanced class.

Semester 1. Create a local writers’ group. You can meet at each others’ houses, in a tavern, at a Dunkin Donuts, by Google Hangout, whatever. There should be no fewer than four and no more than six members. You set up the rules for page length and the schedule at the beginning: say, each member gets one reading of up to 6,000 words, and that the readings are every three weeks. So that means we can go through four writers in twelve weeks, or six writers in eighteen weeks. But here’s the deal: each member has to put up $100 at the beginning, and you receive $10 for each on-time review you write to your colleagues, and $20 when you submit your own work on time to get reviewed. You want structure? You’re losing money if you don’t make your deadlines. That’s a decent structure. At the end of that cycle of reading, the best writer (judged by her peers) gets all the remaining dough, and gets kicked out of the group to join a better one. So your cost for the semester is at most $100 if you totally flake out and don’t do anything at all; $50 if you meet all your responsibilities in a four-person group; and you actually come out $150 to the good if you win. Low risk, low reward, but it’s an awesome gumption test. If you can’t do even this much, then I’ve just saved you tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, and you’ve learned an important life lesson.

Semesters 2-n: Repeat Semester 1 until you get voted up to the next level.

So congratulations, you’ve now become a fully admitted student of the Childress MFA, and it’s only cost you, what, a hundred bucks plus donuts and coffee every three weeks.

Now you have to create a better writers’ group, which probably means doing it online unless you live in a big city. My suggestion is to go to a serious writers’ website (the QueryTracker discussion forum, your preferred genre community like RWA or HWA or the other HWA, or whatever) and spend some time there looking for commentators to the website who you think seem a) intelligent, and b) generous. You know who to avoid: the curmudgeons, the know-it-alls, the kind of people you’d try to get away from at a potluck. You’re going to replicate your first writers’ group, but you’re going to add a few variables. First, you’re going to pony up $500 at the beginning, plus pay for your membership in the writers’ organization. Second, you’re going to commit to more extended reading, say 30,000 words—a third of a novel, or a collection of stories. Third, you’re going to give yourselves a little more time to read, but not much; four or five weeks instead of three. Pay yourselves fifty bucks per review and a hundred bucks for your own submittal, leaving several hundred dollars in the kitty at the end. Now that’s worth fighting for; write better. Again, best writer gets thrown out (you NEVER want to be the best writer in a group).

At this point, if you’ve moved up twice, you’re probably roughly broken even on your investment. If you haven’t moved up yet, think about going back to stage 1 for a while, get more fundamentals behind you, maybe a community college creative writing course, write for the local newspapers.

Now you’re going to spend your first real money. You’re going to apply to a not-very-competitive conference that has both coaches and visiting agents. For instance, my very first writers’ conference was New York Pitch, back in 2012. They’ll crow about how many books got published from there, but that’s not the point. The point is that you’ll hear other people talk about your work without knowing it very well, which puts the burden on you to be able to describe it economically and powerfully. That’s a huge skill to learn. And you’ll be surrounded by other people serious enough to have made the investment. To be ready for that, you need a manuscript to talk about, and need to spend $500-$1,000 to register, plus travel and lodging costs. That sounds like a lot of money, but three grand isn’t even a scratch in a semester’s MFA tuition. And you’ll get feedback from people who read book proposals every single day.

While you’re there, it’s not tourism time, not chit-chat. Tell every interesting person that you’d be happy to read some of their material while you’re there, and be prepared to stay up late at night to do it. This is where you’re going to recruit the members of writers’ group #3, the first group in which you’re going to commit to reading the entirety of one another’s novels or short story collections. Keep your deadlines short; four weeks is totally enough time to read a novel and write intelligent notes about it. Same rules as before, and $500 is still enough to keep people serious.

Once you’ve graduated from that group, NOW you’re ready to apply to one of the big conferences: Sewanee, Tin House, Bread Loaf. You’ve gotten serious commentary on a full-length work from writers you trust, and you’ve learned some things about making comments yourself (more on that tomorrow). You’ve had a chance to revise, and you’re ready to take it to the major leagues. Figure five or six grand to register and travel, and don’t imagine that you’ll necessarily be accepted on your first application.

At the end of this sequence, you’ll have done a ton of really important things:

  • You’ll have had a lot of practice in reviewing others’ writing, and you’ll have seen a lot of stories that work well and a lot of stories that don’t. You’ll know your own tastes better, and know why you like what you like.
  • You’ll have completed and revised a book-length manuscript
  • You’ll know how to summarize a complex work
  • You’ll know how to assemble a peer group of writers you look up to and are honored to share work with (my current writing group is me plus four writers I met at Bread Loaf in 2017)
  • You’ll know whether a life of commitment to writing feels right to you

And you’ll have spent maybe ten thousand dollars to do it. (Will you have a publication contract? No, but MFA programs don’t offer that, either.) And that list of experiences totally qualifies you to think of yourself as an MFA: a M-F’ing Author!