Now that you’ve decided to go the DIY MFA route, it’s time to get down to specifics. There are a few types of customized MFAs. Which is right for you?
Collaborative Customized MFA
Do you live in a large city? Maybe you’re part of an online forum of writers from across the globe. If you have access to a large pool of aspiring writers, you can create a custom MFA program in which a group meets to discuss what they’re reading, what they’re writing, stumbling blocks they might have encountered along the way, etc.
If you’d like to put out feelers to see if there’s enough interest to sustain an ongoing group in your area, you could post flyers at relevant places (libraries, bookshops, coffeehouses, etc.), you could take out a classified ad in the newspaper or in your city’s weekly alternative, or you could post notices at your local college or university.
Some basic questions to consider when starting a collaborative customized MFA:
How large will your group be, and how often will it meet?
Will you limit your group to poets/fiction writers/screenwriters/etc.?
Will you focus on a specific genre within that form?
Will you read the same works at the same time so that you can discuss them as a group, or will you follow your own paths and meet simply to discuss how you’re doing?
Spending time with other writers who have similar goals and paths can make all the difference for some people. If nothing else, it helps to know that you’re not alone. Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton met at a poetry workshop in the mid-1950s, the first workshop either had ever attended, and formed a friendship that lasted until Anne’s death in 1974. They would bolster each other’s courage, read and critique each other’s work, and simply be there for each other through the ups and downs of writing and publishing for nearly 20 years.
But, even though working with other writers can be a godsend to an aspiring author, it can also be a bit of a headache. It takes quite a bit of work to get everyone on the same page, to secure a meeting space, to contact everyone about changes…. The administrative tasks that accompany group undertakings can detract from the time you have to devote to reading and writing.
Individual Customized MFA
If you’re an introverted or independent-minded sort of person, you may be more comfortable working on your own. I’m that sort of person, myself, and that’s how I’ve been approaching (what I consider to be) my real MFA. Working solo allows you to be more flexible with deadlines, reading lists, and whatever else you decide to toss into the mix. If you discover a new-to-you author who seems to speak directly to your heart, who gets your literary blood pumping like no other, you can work their entire catalog into your reading list. If you find that you’ve got the writing bug, you can set aside that reading list and write until your hands cramp up and your pen runs out of ink. An individual customized MFA is the most flexible and personalized MFA there is.
Of course, working solo can be frustrating. There’s no one to bounce your ideas off, no one to offer other perspectives on the novel you just finished, and no one to commiserate with over your writerly disappointments. You may begin to feel isolated out there in MFA land, and for some people, that loneliness and isolation is just too daunting.
Another drawback to pursuing an individual customized MFA is that no one’s around to hold you to your deadlines. Deadlines tend to work only when there’s some form of accountability attached to them. How can you accomplish this with a self-imposed deadline? Well, you can keep yourself accountable by letting others know. Posting your deadlines on Facebook or Twitter or telling friends and family members may just do the trick. Of course, you’ll have to keep people updated as your deadline approaches. If the shame of falling short isn’t enough to keep you producing, however, you might consider imposing a punishment (that you announce along with the deadline, itself). You could offer to pay a friend $50 if you miss the deadline, or you could donate your money or time to an organization with which you disagree (the campaign for presidential re-election comes to mind).
The Best of Both Worlds?
Maybe you know someone out there whose path is similar to yours, someone with whom you “click” and can happily discuss reading and writing for hours, someone who will enhance and enrich your MFA experience. Like finding your perfect writing partner, discovering your MFA partner can be a life-changing occurrence.
Perhaps you already know the perfect person, but if not, you can use the same tactics I described earlier: you can join or contact writing groups, post flyers at libraries, bookstores and college campuses, or place a personal ad in the newspaper or your local alternative weekly. You can even search online. If you’re already a part of an online writing group, try asking if anyone else is interested in pursuing a customized MFA. You might just be surprised. If you’re not part of an online group of writers, search around and join a few. When you craft your MFA query, make sure to describe exactly what you’re looking for. Tell a little about yourself and detail what styles of writing are most interesting to you. If you already have ideas about what you’d like to read, how much writing you’d like to produce, or what kinds of feedback and discussions you’re looking for from an MFA partner, put it into your post. Remember, even if you have only a vague notion of what you’re searching for, you can hammer out the details later – together.
Outlining Your Customized MFA
No matter which path you choose, you must, first and foremost, decide what it is you want to accomplish. Have you always felt you needed to bone up on the classics? Are you hoping to discover new writing styles you can draw from when you’re pursuing your own writing? Do you want to broaden your horizons and delve into genres and styles you haven’t been exposed to? Do you want to knuckle down and get that novel or screenplay or collection of poems written? More likely, it’s a combination of these reasons – and more. Designing your MFA will take some time. Depending on how you work best, you can be as specific or as open as you like. Maybe you’re a free spirit, and only a loose outline of what you’d like to accomplish is enough for you. A few authors, a writing goal, and you’re set. But, for others, creating a reading list, choosing apt online courses (free or paid – more on this later), and setting (realistic) writing goals and deadlines will take a good deal of time and effort. Don’t skimp on this step. This is the heart and soul of your MFA, and you want to be sure it’s just right for you.
Of course, the beauty of a customized MFA is that you can change what isn’t working. Go ahead and create the most glorious program you can, your ideal MFA. Then, as you chug along, you can toss what isn’t working and include more of what is.