Do you need a degree in creative writing to write and publish a novel?
Probably not. But I did. I’ve been writing stories since I was in the second grade, but quitting my full-time job as an English teacher and returning to school at age 31, was exactly what I needed. This was a huge risk. When I told people, “I’m going back to school full time so I can write and publish a novel,” they thought I was bonkers.
I thought I was bonkers! But I also thought, This is my dream. This has been my dream since I was in the second grade: to write and publish a novel. If I don’t go for it now, when am I going to do it?
I have endless ideas. My brain has always been wonky and wobbly and full of wonderful tangents and tendencies toward alliteration. What I lacked were craft basics and nuances. I knew well-enough how to put my ideas on paper. I just didn’t know how to keep going (faith) past page 100. I didn’t know how to set the tone of a work (practice) or how to examine each sentence and each word, line by line for effectiveness and aesthetics (more practice). Nor did I fully comprehend or execute the time-tested SHOW DON’T TELL (now permanently tattooed on my brain).
All that said, the best part about learning craft and learning rules is gaining the freedom to break those rules. It’s like painting. Picasso and Van Gogh had to learn form. They painted nudes, still-lifes and landscapes. They learned their craft. Only after learning craft were they free to experiment and find their own visions. It’s no different with writing.
You have to learn the rules, whether it’s through an MFA program or reading voraciously, before you can find your own style, which may or may not include breaking the rules. For example, I do not write linearly. It’s not how my brain works. It’s not how I perceive the world. It’s not my style. I write like a weaver. I have threads between my teeth, fingers and toes and then I have to figure out how they fit together. Time is not linear. It’s about relationships. Who do you tie yourself to? How do you fit?
I worked HARD when I was getting my MFA. The more criticism I received, the harder I worked. I listened; paid attention; volunteered to produce and critique whenever possible. In other words, I was not fucking around. I wasn't there to just get a degree. I was there to learn craft and discipline. And after school finished, I had my beautiful son. Well, I had my son in March, 2005 and graduated in May. I wore my baby Bjorn to graduation.I spent the next four years raising my son and trying to publish The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, my debut novel. All that criticism from my MFA served me well.
But that's enough about me! What’s your style? What have you learned about writing? Did you get an MFA? Did it serve you well? Are you self-taught? Are you happy, published or not, putting your ideas on paper?
That's the main thing: If you don't love the act of writing for the sake of doing it, you should find a new line of work. The glory is in the act.
Thank you for reading. Shout out to Bill Tester for helping me to understand the beauty of the act. There is nothing more important.
*My next two novels, Perfect Birds and The Saints of Los Vientos are under contract with Simon and Schuster.