If money were no object, I’d have spent the last few years researching and applying to MFA programs; with any luck, I’d be enrolled in one now. But as with much of life, money is an issue, and so instead I embarked last year on what I hope will be the next best thing: a Do It Yourself Master of Fine Arts (DIYMFA) program.
I’ll receive no diploma, and I won’t be any better qualified to teach at the university level than I am with my Master of Arts degree. But neither of those rewards matter much at this point in my life. Several years ago, I voluntarily left a university tenure track position, and though I love teaching, I don’t especially aspire to another university job. And my other diplomas are stashed in a closet, so I guess I don't need another of those either.
What I’d love about an MFA program would be the opportunities to study with top-notch authors whose work I admire, to get meaningful critiques of my work, to read voraciously and systematically in ways that would enhance the quality of my writing, and to engage with a dynamic community of writers who share my goals. The ultimate goal would be writing that is better, richer, and truer any I’ve done before. In particular, I wanted to expand my published work (fiction and nonfiction for children; non-fiction and travel for adults) into quality fiction for adults.
A do-it-yourself program can’t provide the same set of experiences that I’d get in an MFA program, but I set out to fashion one that I hoped would improve my writing in meaningful ways. I honed my list of aspirational writers and began reading and rereading, paying careful attention to how they created the prose I admire. To that I added reading lists from Jayne Anne Phillips and David Vann, two authors/instructors I admire. Through this blog, I found other writers I could meet with monthly for camaraderie and critiquing. Between freelance projects and the surge of effort required to get the 49 Alaska Writing Center up and running, I planned a foray into fiction for adults, in the form of short stories. I figured I’d give myself two years.
Now that Year One of my DIYFMA experience is history, I thought I should offer a brief report to you, my extended online accountability group (at least that’s how I think of you in DIYMFA terms). I didn’t get through all the reading I assigned to myself, but I tackled a fair chunk of it, discovering new insights – and a few new aspirational writers – along the way. I only drafted one of the low-stakes short stories I’d intended, but I did draft a young adult novel that shows some promise, though it’s technically not aligned with my adult fiction goal. (DIYFMA note to self: it’s easy to get sidetracked.) The low-stakes short story, recently revised, is also the start of a novel for adults.
But part of my DIYMFA philosophy is that the quality of my writing is more important than how much I’m writing. I’m trying to engage in new ways of thinking and working, inspired by my DIYMFA “teachers,” including David Vann, with whom I was privileged to study in person at the 2010 49 Writers Tutka Bay Retreat. That retreat was the seminal experience of my first DIYMFA year. From it, I can only imagine the abundance of rich adventures that are part of a real MFA program, though I know not all teachers and writers are the caliber of David Vann.
For my DIY program this year, I’ve put together a reading list of thirty books, and I hope to finish my novel for adults, giving it the patience and care I hope it deserves. And I’m wondering: are there any other DIYMFA’ers out there?