How To Become A Better Writer Without Joining An MFA Program.

by Sebastian Paramo

Many budding young writers may feel out of place when it comes to browsing literary journals, new books of literature on bookstore shelves, or intimidated by writer bios that list awards, MFA programs, and so forth. It makes one wonder if your work is worth anything, and might have you weighing the pros and cons of an MFA program.

I’ve decided to compile a list of ways to become a better writer to alleviate some of that pressure that comes with rejection and feeling like you’ve made it. As a former MFA student, I can tell you that it’s not always the MFA program itself that makes you a better, but its what you make of your resources and your experience outside the “program” can be just as fruitful.

Join a Writer’s Group

File:Algonquin Round Table.gif

Portrait of Art Samuels, Charlie MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott of the Algonquin Round Table

Sometimes you might feel that you’re the only one writing poetry in town and that everyone else doesn’t know a thing about poetry. The beautiful thing about our modern world is that never before has it been easier to find a writer’s community. Some may prefer the solitary world of writing at home alone, but there’s something about being involved in a community of writers and having someone to share my work with that feels enriching and gives people the urge to write more.

Ploughshare’s blog on literary boroughs may be a great start for those that live close to college towns or large cities and want to discover all the good bookstores, cafes, and places where writers congregate. Poet’s and Writer’s also has a great list of City Guides. For those in more isolated places and daring enough, Meetup.com might just be the place for you to find a group online or encourage others in your community to meet up at a local cafe and create your own workshop. As a rule of thumb though, most libraries and bookstores make an effort to host open-mics and readings. If there isn’t one in your area that already hosts readings, you might consider hosting one yourself. You might be surprised to see who wants to share their work.

Attend a writer’s workshop

Robert Frost and other poets in attendance at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference

 

Some local community centers, like the YMCA, offer inexpensive workshops. Community colleges and universities sometimes are sometimes open to letting non-traditional students take workshops. Although the bigger the name of the program, the harder it might be to take the class.

Newpages has an excellent list of writer’s workshops and conferences organized by state. Poets.org is also a great resource that separates its list by state. Many of these writer workshop classes and conferences only require you to send a manuscript or pay a fee to attend. You can consider it a vacation for yourself, especially if it’s only for a week or two. Some examples of community workshops include The Gotham Writer’s Workshop in New York where anyone can pay to workshop with published writers. In Chicago, there’s The Writer’s Loft.

Some people don’t like writer’s workshops and find them unproductive or the criticism is too easy or too hard on you. A good workshop, however, will have a teacher that will guide a productive conversation on your work. Don’t hesitate googling or researching how that teacher runs a workshop.

For a beginning writer, a workshop gives you a good perspective on what you’re doing by providing conversations on what works for people and what doesn’t. Although, sometimes people just don’t get what you’re doing. Richard Hugo famously said in his book that he told his workshop students that his advice on a student’s work might not be the best. A teacher of mine took this further and said sometimes a teacher or students in your class might not be the right readers for you. It’s important to listen only to the few whose comments make the most sense to you.

Some may argue this is risky advice, to listen to those who only praise you, but it is important to always take care to challenge yourself. Often times, I find myself being harder on myself than my peers. As a counter to the above: seek a reader of your work that isn’t afraid to tell you like it is, but in a constructive way. As a rule of thumb, a workshop on a piece should always begin with what a person likes about your piece and what works, followed by the negative. The negative can be hard to take at first, but as stated about: you may choose to take it as a grain of salt or challenge yourself.

A good perspective on this comes from the poet, Ada Limon on the Poetry Foundation Blog.
In this she writes:

Above both of our desks in Brooklyn we had the Samuel Beckett quote, “Try gain. Fail again. Fail better.” So, I would fail better. I’d send in better failed poems and get better rejections in the rejection box. Rejection made me, not only a better writer, a better proofreader, and a better reader (of the journals, of the poems that were being accepted, of my own work), I also think it made me a better person.

Workshops also build your community and support. For many people, their first workshop can be the place where they connect with other like-minded writers and hold workshops outside of a classroom without the requirement of a fee. You never know, someone that attends a writer’s workshop might become a fan and happen to be an editor of some magazine.

A friend of mine once attended a writer’s conference and received her first publication credit from an editor who liked the poem she brought to workshop.

Attend a Writer’s Colony, Writer’s Retreat, or Residency

One of the cabins for residents

Madroño Ranch in Texas offers a residency for Texas writers free of charge.

Writer’s colonies and residencies can be great places to connect with writers and set aside time for writing.  Some of these may be more competitive or require various degrees of success to attend. Notable places to do residency include: Atlantic Center for Arts, Fine Arts Workcenter, Hedgebrook, for female writers, The Millay Colony for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and the Corporation of Yaddo. The places I’ve mentioned are places that offer scholarships, fellowships, and/or low cost and have hosted writers of varying shades of fame.
Life in a colony or residency requires more of a time commitment than an ordinary workshop. Artists that apply are often invited to stay for as little as two weeks or even three months or longer.

Artists Communities is a great resource that offers a great filter system and includes information for artists of various disciplines. Poet’s and Writer’s list of writer’s residencies is also a great list of writer based organizations.

The Norman Mailer Center, retreat program provides writers the time and space to write in Provincetown in former home of Norman Mailer.

Because of the time offered, these residencies and colonies, will probably be your best bet at offering you the freedom to work alone, uninterrupted. You could feel like Thoreau and get back to “nature”, writing in your room away from home.

Read

Read, read, read. Read books on poetry, read books on fiction, read anything you can get your hands on. Inspiration can be found anywhere. Who’s to say an article in Nature magazine on the mating habits of ducks wouldn’t inspire a good work of prose or poetry? Reading the classics is always helpful. A good poet once told me that reading what everyone else is reading is helpful even if you might not like it. For instance,  T.S. Eliot, in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ says that poets [writers] should acknowledge what precedes them.

The usual Norton anthologies and other required anthologies that show up in university courses are good references. And there’s always the many small presses that are remarkably good advocates of against-the-grain literature. Some really good examples are “The Outlaw Bible of American..”series,  “Women Write Resistance” and “A Face to Meet Faces“. It’s helpful to look at these and see what all the fuss is about and see what works for you and what doesn’t. Even from the worst writing we can find inspiration. Take a look at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest which celebrates worst opening sentences.

Read books on craft and the interviews of writers. The Paris Review has a collection of many writer interviews. Another example is the blog How a Poem Happens.

You can also use Google to search for your favorite authors and see if they have any new interviews elsewhere.

Write

Challenge yourself to writing prompts.  Sometimes modeling your writing after another writer’s style can trigger something. In poetry, many good poems are written “after a poet” as if following a tradition. Follow blogs that offer writing prompts or challenge yourself by coming up with your own. Again Poets & Writer’s offers a great list to follow. The Poet’s Companion, a personal favorite of mine is another great resource on writing prompts and craft. Fiction writers often pay homages to other works, be sure to give credit where credit is due.

The real trick is motivating yourself and fine-tuning your writing. Then comes the luck part, finding the right home for your writing. National Novel Writing Month in November and National Poetry Month’s 30/30 in April are great motivators for writing.

In the end, writing is the least we can do because that’s what a writer does, they write. The real kicker is to become better or as Samuel Beckett would say:

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