An Illiterate Walks Into an MFA Program

Despite having written two nonfiction books, I don't know how to write. Shh.

Have you ever done something without knowing how but you just did it anyway and could never explain it? That's me for writing, and now I'm attending a low residency Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program for fiction.

I arrived at the program's first ten-day residency in Maine with my cohorts, ranging from 22 to 86 years old, all excited to avert real life for a week and a half. I first met Cameron, who had just finished undergrad, and we went out for lunch. Cameron played outfield for his college baseball team but writing is his real passion. I admired how he writes every day no excuses. He built writing into his daily life, like brushing my teeth, and even then every so often I drink whiskey and forget.

During the residency, I often sat with Cameron in front of our hotel rooms after seminars just listening. Cameron taught me about profluence--keeping the story going--and inserting detail and untraditional sentences at select moments. Cameron offered as much valuable insight as the bestselling authors who served on the faculty. He helped me maintain footing in an otherwise overwhelming environment.

"What writing classes did you take in college?" I said.

"Just Reading in Poetry. And Adventures in Nonfiction, Argumentative Writing, Literary Theory, Major American Authors, Brit Lit 1 and 2, Film and Literature Adaptation, Grammar, Young Adult Lit, Comparative Lit, and two creative writing classes. How about you?"

"...Shit this pho is spicy!"

Our first seminar, on manipulating sentences, used examples from novels by J.D. Salinger. I leaned over to Cameron and whispered, "Is Salinger a woman?"

"No, Salinger was a man. And he's dead."

Our second seminar used Pride and Prejudice to demonstrate outlining a novel, including where to place the inciting incident, threshold crossing, climax and denouement. I leaned over to Cameron again. "An outline makes so much sense. I really could have benefited from planning my stories over the last 12 years."

"How did you write without an outline?"

"I just sat and typed, praying my words would lead somewhere."

Workshop is the heart of a writing program. During a short coffee break after our leader spoke for a bit during our first day at workshop, I asked Cameron, "Is this how a normal workshop goes?"

"No, we haven't started yet. That was just a lecture."

After the break we began critiquing one student's short story. This was workshop. Cameron spoke for a couple minutes on the narrator's point of view, and how some aspects of the story made the narrator unreliable. Another student discussed how the story's descriptions appealed to all the senses--we could feel and smell the setting in addition to seeing it. And a third student discussed how the story's ambiguity led to intrigue, but it needed to trim the spectrum of possible outcomes because the ending was too vague.

It was my turn to offer critique despite having never analyzed a book beyond rating them on Goodreads from one to five stars. "Great imagery and some of your sentences are beautiful! I highlighted them in the packet. You'll see. Love it!"

We broke for more coffee. I filled my fourth cup of the day to the brim. We returned to critique another student's story and I prefaced my remarks. "I"m sorry, but I'm not a strong reader."

"Don't apologize for that, we all have different strengths," the workshop leader said.


After workshop I bought a bottle of single malt and a flask. It was our second day of our ten-day residency.

We held open mic that night, when each student could read for up to three and a half minutes. New students were expected to perform. Entertaining others through public speaking--ahh, finally something I had done before. I signed up.

The open mic coordinator called my name and everyone yelled "Firstie!" I sipped my water, analyzed my notes to ensure I held them in their correct order, and walked up to the lectern. Standing tall, I lowered the microphone to the level of my mouth. I lifted my head and looked towards my new friends, smiling first at Cameron in the middle and then others across the room. And then I killed it.

What I read was nonfiction. Shh.