How To Save $50,000 On Your MFA

Hint: Don’t get one. Michael Kimball didn’t–and now he’s passing along what he’s learned on his own.

How To Save $50,000 On Your MFA
[Photo: Flickr user Alejandro Lavin, Jr.]

For the last three decades, I’ve been reading books and essays about writing fiction. Along the way, I’ve collected the best bits of advice I’ve found. For many years, those writing tips were just notes I kept in a special file on my computer, reading through them whenever I needed a little inspiration or a solution to a writing problem.

Michael KimballPhoto: RaRah

A few years ago, though, I was asked to give a one-hour lecture on fiction writing at the University of Massachusetts’s Juniper Summer Writing Institute. That’s when I realized my file of notes about writing could benefit all kinds of writers. Then I thought of a title for the lecture that made me laugh: “The One-Hour MFA”. That was the origin of the idea, and the title sealed it. I covered as many topics about the craft of writing as I could in just one hour. That lecture went so well that I expanded my notes into a series of essays, which then further evolved into a book.

Now The One-Hour MFA (in Fiction) is the best advice I have learned about writing–collected and organized into 15 separate essays about openings, story and plot, language and sentences, narration and voice, character, dialogue, description and details, endings, and other elements of fiction. The book also contains insights about the craft from writers as diverse as Aimee Bender and Don DeLillo, Ray Bradbury and R. Kelly, Virginia Woolf and Joyce Carol Oates, Sam Lipsyte and Laura van den Berg, Haruki Murakami and Kurt Vonnegut.

On Process

E.L. Doctorow says, “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” At the end of your trip, you have your final word count–but not the end of your work. Ellen Gilchrist, for example, notes, “Writing is rewriting,” so for writers who have just finished a first draft, there’s a lot of advice about revision. John Irving has said, “Half of my life is an act of revision.” And Sam Lipsyte says, “I don’t trust people who brag about how they rarely rewrite. Either they’re lying or their prose sucks.” To help with this daunting process, consider one of the best single pieces of advice I’ve ever received: “Cut whatever is not absolutely necessary.”

Before you worry about what to cut, think about what you have: this includes a story’s acoustics, syntax, and diction, as well as how a writer develops a personal language. As Raymond Carver has noted, this personal language is “akin to style . . . but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another.”

The One-Minute MFA

If one hour was boiled down to 60 seconds, what might it look like? To answer that, I’ve boiled down the book to its essence with what I consider the best piece of advice from The One-Hour MFA (in Fiction). This feels appropriate, as so much of writing is removing. I call this section “The One-Minute MFA (in Fiction),” and it starts with a quote from Connie Willis:

Every sentence should set the tone, define the character, and advance the plot. If it’s not doing all three, fix it, or cut it.

Of course, it doesn’t need to be the three things Willis suggests. It could also be setting, voice, narration, or acoustics. The idea is that every sentence should be doing more than one thing.

The One-Hour MFA (in Fiction)

In a sense, The One-Hour MFA (in Fiction) touches on everything a fiction writer needs to know. The book provides a range of ways to think about various elements of fiction, which exist on a kind of continuum. Of course, different writers emphasize different elements of fiction, and this is what makes each writer’s work distinct. The key is to make those individual choices, whatever they may be, and to use those choices to create original fiction.

The Exciting Conclusions

In another sense, reading about fiction writing is only helpful to a point. The big secret about being a writer, if there is one, is that it requires practice. To become a better writer, you need to write, and read, and read and write, until reading and writing become a habit, a good habit, the kind of good habit that makes a person’s life better than it would be otherwise. Ultimately, fiction writing can only really be learned by writing fiction.

I never enrolled in an MFA program, which may account for my fascination with writing advice. I was accepted to a couple programs, but decided the financial burden didn’t justify the cost, especially when there were so many books about writing fiction available. I did take a few independent fiction-writing workshops, though. And over the years, I’ve had a couple of generous writing teachers. This book is my attempt to be generous in return.

Michael Kimball is the author of eight books, including the novels Big Ray, Dear Everybody, Us, and The One-Hour MFA (in Fiction), available now from Publishing Genius, or free online at Real Pants (with two essays appearing each week over the course of the summer). Michael’s work has been translated into a dozen languages, and featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as in The Guardian and Bomb.