A few years ago, I decided to start signing up for writing classes. Although I already had an MFA in creative nonfiction, I didn’t write or publish often. I was, and still am, working forty hours a week and commuting on top of that. I worried about money and time. I reasoned if I paid for a class, I would be much more likely to get results.
I signed up for a class that was literally about “getting back into writing again.” I messaged the teacher and told her I had an MFA and asked if the class would be too introductory to be helpful for me. “It works for everyone,” she said. But when I took the class, that proved to be untrue. I write experimental nonfiction; I practice micro editing; I hate following narrative structure and I don’t need to “save” any “cat” for my writing to be meaningful. After a week or so, the teacher of the class advised us all to engage in rising action and plot in our nonfiction, and I said I just didn’t engage in arcs like that. She said, now, the class wasn’t for me and we’d have to talk offline, which we never did.
I am so frustrated with the tools available to writers who already have an MFA. I will admit that everyone in my graduate program encouraged me to take a publication workshop, network with visiting writers, and maximize the free university money that was earmarked for submission fees. I was an idiot and lacked the self-confidence to take their advice. I was naïve enough to think that just sitting in my room and writing would somehow work out for me.
A year later, I was subletting a $700-a-month hallway in Brooklyn and yearning for the support of a graduate program again. I learned the hard way that some tools are better than others for writers. I hope these three guidelines will help mid-career writers, especially those who are writing and editing outside their creative focus.
- Take a class, but choose wisely. Skip the introductory classes if they’re in your genre. I won’t ever take another low-level memoir class again, but last year I did take a master-level nonfiction class at Catapult and it was revelatory. It was also pricier than other options and had a portfolio submission requirement. Here’s the exception: take an intro class if you’re switching genres. I took One Story’s Short Story intensive (I have almost no experience with fiction) and it was unbelievably fun, well-organized, and accessible.
- Invest in yourself, but know your limits. If you are painfully awkward like so many writers are, don’t spend your money on networking opportunities where you’re expected to gladhand for hours. In New York, there are gentle, quiet coworking spaces like Paragraph, Bat Haus, and Woodbine Research (and The Loft in Minneapolis! And Hugo House in Seattle!) where writers can simply work in solidarity. These are great spaces dedicated to writing, and you can attend without the major commitment to, say, an out-of-state residency.
- Suspect the popular. I can’t tell you how many times someone has recommended The Artist’s Way. In a moment of writer’s-block-fueled desperation, I went to my local library and checked it out. I was roundly shocked: The Artist’s Way is based on Christianity. In the beginning pages, readers are warned that they can ignore the formally religious stuff, but that awareness and belief in a Creator or divine force is necessary for the book to work. My creative friends had no idea, and neither did I until I picked up the book. Even more surprising, the actual rules for Morning Pages instructs the writer to throw away their writing, never to be looked at again. I met a screenwriter who actually burned their pages! With fire!
So many people tell me to do Morning Pages, but it isn’t a generative exercise; it’s a practice of writing the garbage out and cleaning the mental gutters, so it were. “Perfection is the enemy of action,” seems to be the underlying maxim. I completely agree with the sentiment that writers procrastinate writing because we are conditioned to produce “good” or “excellent” or “profound” passages. But this practice of longhand generating several pages of ideas and feelings and prose, then never editing them or revisiting them is profoundly unhelpful for working writers.
The hardest lesson I had to learn after my MFA was to genuinely invest time and money in myself. The second hardest lesson was to skip the easy, introductory and popular tactics. Be honest with yourself: if you’re going to take a class, pay more and take a challenging class. If you’re going to spend money, invest in something useful and individualized to you! And if you’re using Morning Pages to produce four pages of prose and ideas a day, USE THEM. Edit, revise, revisit, re-read.