For some, the idea of pursuing an MFA degree is overwhelming, complicated, or impossible. Amidst the wealth of advice available to those taking a less academically fueled ride through a life of creative writing, I humbly offer, for your consideration, my own personal step by step guide to NOT acquiring an MFA.
1. Wait until you are way too old, have way too many obligations, and need to feed your family and pay your bills before deciding that what would REALLY give your life meaning is a terminal creative arts degree.
2. Sneak away from your family and attend the occasional writing conference or retreat to confirm you are happiest when writing or among writers. Envy those writers’ talents and accomplishments. Feel totally inadequate. Enjoy sleeping alone in a hotel room where you are in charge of no one.
3. Read magazines and blogs and long feeds on various Facebook groups about writing. Buy too many memoirs and way too many books on craft. Pile them around your house so you look like a writer. Imagine querying an agent someday. Google “how to query an agent” repeatedly. Forget to bookmark the sites you devour. Also forget the great ideas for pieces that you often get while walking your three small rescue dogs. Learn that it is impossible to write down ideas while wrestling with three tiny animals. Wonder why you are walking said animals when your teenage son could. Despite repeated instructions from said son, consistently forget how to use the voice memo app on your phone in order not to lose said ideas.
4. Only send your best friend your pieces. She is gentle enough that you can withstand her criticism and keep your dignity. Plus, she’s free.
5. Laugh at your children when they object to how you characterize them in published pieces. Consider an elegant tattoo with these words from Anne Lamott: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Do not tell your children your tattoo fantasy.
6. Try not to take personally that your husband no longer reads much of your work. “I was there,” he explains. “Why do I need to read about it?”
7. Get over the fact that “a real writer wouldn’t need prompts.” You LOVE prompts. Get over all sentences in your head that begin with “A real writer wouldn’t…”
8. Keep plugging away on what may or may not be a memoir/essay collection/braided narrative/experimental je ne sais quoi. Steal the time from things you ought to be doing: correcting papers, answering emails, or changing the cat litter. Write something every single day.
9. Except when you don’t. Avoid feasting on guilt on the days when you don’t or can’t write. Give yourself a break.
10. Take online classes in your nightgown at 5:00 a.m. curled up in your chair with fresh coffee. Generally, if you pay for something, you stick with it. Plus, no one cares about your muffin top if you are wearing a nightgown.
11. Savor the comments from classmate-strangers as if they are Godiva chocolate truffles. When your teacher praises you, rejoice, but be suspicious. I mean, she’s never even met you.
12. Read your online classmates’ posts. Offer generous feedback. Feel relief that you, a life-long English teacher, are not in charge of their dangling participles. Fight the urge to insert Oxford commas and lecture people on subject-verb agreement.
13. Feel virtuous about all the money you’ve saved by not going back to school. Imagine how annoying real-life in person classmates could be, especially if they made fun of you for being the oldest person (and worst writer) in your class.
14. Ask one of your writing teachers to guide you on the next iteration of your maybe-memoir/essay/narrative thing after you shape the hundreds of bits and pieces you’ve generated over the past four years. Re-read the email ten times when she actually says yes.
15. Repeat steps as necessary, on your own time, in your own way, because no one is watching, no one is judging, and this is your journey. Imperfect, messy, inconvenient, and worth it. When you start fantasizing about “really starting to write” after you retire, eat a piece of sea-salt dark chocolate and get back in the game. Retirement is a mirage. Write right now. You have things to say. Why wait?