I'm a big fan of the Book Lantern blog. So when Vinaya shot me an email and asked me to write a guest post, I jumped at the chance. Then, I sat down to try writing on the suggested topic— the importance of a writing education for writers—and proceeded to chew my nails down to little stubs.
You see, Vinaya knows that I have a Masters of Fine Arts in writing. I graduated in 2009 from the University of Florida's well-regarded MFA program with a concentration in poetry. With the student loans to show for my commitment to a writerly education, and having guided undergraduate students in their own journeys to become educated, adept writers of both poetry and prose in the classroom, Vinaya hoped that I could speak on the topic of the impact and importance of education on writers.
But the truth is, I wouldn't recommend that most young writers—and probably not those who would be reading a blog focused on young adult literature—follow in my footsteps.
It's not that I deny the importance of education, in the broadest sense, for the aspiring novelist. I think that every writer has an obligation—perhaps even a duty—to be both widely read and committed to the constant improvement of one's skill set. I hate when a published work belies broad ignorance of a writer's genre, or is poorly edited, or makes rookie mistakes.
But I think that there are many ways to correct these problems, and many ways for a writer to develop her expertise. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books on the subject of writing (my favorites are Nancy Kress's Beginnings, Middles & Ends and Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit). There are internet forums like Absolute Write and the Blue Boards where young writers can get editing help and career advice. There are SCWBI critique groups and genre workshops like Clarion where writers can meet like-minded writers.
And there's always the notion of reading widely and voraciously. While book suggestions from an educator can be valuable, I wouldn't say that they're invaluable; within the academia, particularly, I strongly feel that any proposed canon be taken with an enormous grain of salt.
Here's what I didn't know when I started my journey in MFA-land at twenty three: the academic writing world caters to a specific type of writer, with specific interests. Though the particulars vary somewhat according to program, it is fairly unusual to find writing programs which celebrate genre writing; writing for children or teens; or commercial writing, defined in the broadest sense of the term. MFAs are as much about cultivating a certain standard of "good taste" as they are about developing craft skills.
It might seem self-evident to say all of that, that it's really mostly literary writers who are best-served by getting an MFA, and who will likely have the happiest time in an MFA program. But it wasn't self-evident when I was applying to graduate school. I'd done well in my workshops in college, and my professors encouraged me to enter the MFA world as the next step in my writerly development. This advice was given with absolutely the best intentions. In many ways, it was seen as the next natural step for a young, gifted writer: if you want to make an earnest study of writing, you go into an MFA program.
And within the last several years, there's been an explosion of MFA culture. More programs are developed with each passing year, some funded, some not. Often they are either sources of income for a university (if the programs aren't funded, they can be quite expensive) or sources of cheap labor (if they are, MFA students often act as TAs, teaching composition classes for very low wages). And spending several years focusing on writing can seem a very attractive prospect indeed for those fresh out of college and just entering the workforce amidst an economic depression.
I can't deny that there were good things about my time spent in my MFA program. I had a fairly relaxed schedule, wrote quite a bit, and made many good friends there. My professors were caring and dedicated and always well-intentioned. And I had the opportunity to take other classes at the University, including critical coursework in young adult literature and science fiction.
But I can't deny the conflict I felt as I became increasingly dedicated to both YA and genre, as I spent my summers trying to learn how to write speculative fiction even as I was told that I wouldn't be able to take fiction workshops unless I refrained from embracing these speculative elements in my workshopped writing.
The truth was, I didn't know what kind of writer I was when I applied to MFA programs. I thought that all writers read like I did, very widely, exploring both literary and commercial fiction. I wasn't aware that some literary writers look down on commercial writers (and if you doubt that's true, just look at what Jennifer Egan recently had to say about Megan McCafferty). And I didn't realize that a writer's education within the academia would often incorporate a certain nudging—sometimes gentle, sometimes not—toward high-brow literature, the sort of literature that I don't often enjoy reading, much less writing.
So my advice on education for writers would be this: make a study of writing, most definitely. Read lots and lots of books, edit your writing, and be open to both criticism and improvement. But be wary of anyone who tells you that there's only one true path to becoming a writer. The truth is that there are as many paths as there are successful, published novelists. What worked for one person (even me!) might not necessarily work for you.
Phoebe North is a YA author, blogger and reviewer. And one of our favourite people on the internets! Check out her blog here; and don't forget to pay a visit to the awesome The Interrobangs, where Phoebe is a regular contributor.