myMFA – A two year writer’s development program

A few months ago a writing pal passed along a link to Dennis Cass’ web site. There I found a post discussing his version of an idealized MFA program, an alternative MFA. Cass’ point of view was that traditional MFA curriculums were filed with blanks, specifically outside of craft development, as done through workshops, and outside (perhaps) literary criticism, as done through massive reading work.

This struck a cord with me, it sounded about right. I had just read the rather MFA deviating essay by Louis Menand in the New Yorker, “Show or Tell,” about the vast industry of writing programs that have sprung up across the country since the Second World War, and I had already rejected the idea that a traditional MFA program was the way I would develop as a writer.

But that didn’t mean I rejected all structured development outright. From Cass’ post I began to think about the design of what I call myMFA. Like his, it’s an alternative to the mainstream MFA structure that has taken root out there.

Much like my Infobase system, the origin and much of the original thinking of this program began with someone else, in this case Cass. He gets the credit for these ideas, I’ve just modified them to my needs and my point of view, fleshed out some, abandoned other, and put the whole thing into implementation. So if you don’t like it, it’s probably because of something I did, if you do like it, the credit goes to Cass.

Here’s the basic idea: Over a two year period you have to do five things: develop capabilities in craft, understand your work’s relationship to the cannon (however you define that), understand the business world that your work will eventually be in, become conversant with the management and productivity techniques necessary to run large scale projects, and learn how to live as an artist.

That last one, living as an artist, living the writer’s life, is a big deal for mid-life changers, especially those of us who have come from the land of commerce, and it is absent, or just assumed, in most MFA programs because they are designed to deal with students more malleable in their life patterns than us ex MBA, ex DayTimer, ex Steven Covey types.

The biggest challenge new writers face is all the Annie Lamott, Bird by Bird stuff of writing every day, managing your creative powers, having something to say, keeping a journal, assembling a writing group; these are survival skills for writers and deserve the call out they have in the program.

The five part structure seemed to make a lot of sense and was different then the two tiered approach of workshop and reading most MFA programs have copied from places like Iowa and NYU.

Here are myMFA categories…

The Writing Life – The Foundation of the Creative Process

  • The daily practices of writing
  • Journaling skills
  • Managing creative energy and the psychology of writing
  • Developing your relationship to the world
  • Developing support – Engaging the community of writers & writing institutions

The Almighty Page

  • The Word – Linguistics and vocabulary
  • The Sentence and paragraph – Grammar, style and discourse studies
  • Scenes, narratives and basic dramatic structure
  • Characterization, mood, tone, and environment
  • Understand Organic vs Structural approaches, understanding how it all differs from Creative Revision’ing
  • Special Topics: Experimental fiction, alternative genres, etc.

Literary Criticism and Other Writers Work

  • Theory of Literary Criticism
  • Writers writing before you – The movements preceding and supporting yours
  • Writers writing around you – Contemporaries in your genera

Supporting Topics

Management of the Craft

  • Introduction to project management
  • Planning a novel
  • Basic research techniques
  • How to collaborate

The business of writing

  • Introduction to publishing
  • Pitching yourself and your work
  • Public relations, media training, your web presence

Execution Notes

  • I am a prose fiction writer and the list reflects this, although I think it would not be hard to make adjustments for a poet, a NF writer, or someone who committed early on to working in a specific genera.
  • There is writing going on all the time. There is reading going on all the time. The fundamentals of the traditional two part MFA are firmly rooted in the program. The emphasis changes from year one and year two. Exercises and theory in year one give way to the development of personal work in year two. I’ve called it a Prose Studio, a series of guided sessions with a professor or writer focused on my personal work. Having the mentor is crucial; I’ve surrendered to the need for a guide.
  • In practice and scheduling the program ends up looking a lot like a page from an MFA course guide. The trick is to make the five part emphasis above flow into the three running lanes of Craft development, LitCrit and the Practicum.
  • The 2009 year in the example below is sloppy because it shows what I actually did, rather than what I would do. The detriment to being a solo practitioner is that you can’t rely on someone else to do you administration for you, so you construct curriculums by yourself, and of course do it in a less than efficient manner.

2009 Plan – Revised

1 month 4 months 3 months 4 months
Dec – Jan Spring Summer Fall
Re-create Writing Fundamentals Persona Narrator Persona Narrator
– The daily practice- Clean up backlog of notes Practices -Journaling -Bird by Bird -Creative Management -Linguistics (Rosenberg) -Basic Craft (Ross) Classes – Classical Craft (Offit) – Experimental Fiction (Mesmer) Forms -Vignettes -Pose Ode -Palm of the Hand -Cut up (Burroughs) Class – The Writers Studio 1A LitCrit – Forrester Writers Life – Leaves of Grass experience Classes – Writers Studio 1B – Grammar of periodic sentences (Landon) LitCrit – Woods Writers Life – Pages – Vocabulary


3 months 3 months 3 months 3 months
Winter Spring Summer Fall
Mood and Tone Environment Emotional Content
Writers Studio L2 Writers Studio L3 Craft Class Writers Studio L4 Craft Class Writers Studio L5 Craft Class
Prose Studio A Prose Studio B Prose Studio C Prose Studio D
Reading the Modern Novel The American Novel Since 1945 Theory of Literary Criticism Large Work / Novel Planning
August – Writer’s Retreat

(Tables, WordPress, yuch…I’ll try and print out the above to a pdf and add a link so the program is more legible)
Okay, try this PDF–> myMFA Chart Only

Sept 2011 Update

You might want to look at this

  • DIYMFA – Do It Yourself MFA
  • And this as well

  • David Eric Tomlinson DIY MFA

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    1. Super Skinner
      Posted January 31, 10 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      Thank you for publishing the results your deliberations on all of this DDB. It’s very helpful to me in thinking about my own focus.

    2. Posted January 31, 10 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      You’re welcome NES!

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