So You Want To Be A Writer

Whether you're dreaming of writing the great American novel or you've just got a few poems you're trying to publish, you'd be surprised at the wealth of options available to help you improve and mature as a writer.
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Whether you're dreaming of writing the great American novel or you've just got a few poems you're trying to publish, you'd be surprised at the wealth of options available to help you improve and mature as a writer. This week we'll take a look at some ways to hone your craft with a focus on the workshop and creative writing programs. Next week we'll take a look at getting your work published.

The Importance of the Workshop

If you've only been honing your craft with your significant other, and maybe a few questionable critics on a message board, you should consider joining a workshop: a small group of writers, usually led by an instructor, who share and critique each other's work. Workshops have become the backbone of writing instruction in this country, and the format offers a lot of advantages.

The structure of a workshop is simple: 1) participants bring in work for review; 2) each participant reads and critiques it; and 3) the group discusses the work as a whole. This provides you with a lot of differing opinions on your work and exposes you to the struggles and successes of other aspiring writers. You'll learn what works (and doesn't work) for you, but you'll also glean what works (and doesn't work) for others. Finally, a workshop allows you to develop relationships with other writers: your classmates might be your doorway into a local poetry community and could turn into your most trusted readers.

What to Expect in a Workshop

Having your writing scrutinized by a dozen people is stressful, and everyone secretly hopes they'll be told to dust off some mantle space for a Nobel Prize. But the truth is, sterling workshops rarely happen. The nature of a workshop is to seek out mistakes so it's important to try to lower your expectations, distance yourself from your work as much as possible and be prepared for criticism. It should be constructive, but it isn't always--your classmates aren't just learning to write, they're learning to critique.

Be prepared to screw up. Early on in graduate school, a classmate announced (with a little too much glee) that I'd committed the "pathetic fallacy." I was young, I wanted to be taken seriously, and I was petrified by this. I'd made, not just a fallacy, but a pathetic one, and I seemed to be the only one in class who had no idea what that meant. The instructor explained that the pathetic fallacy is a term for "assigning human feelings to inanimate objects," and didn't necessarily reflect my level of effort. The key word there being necessarily--I remember that poem was kind of a dud.

Finally, be prepared to deal with some egos. You might see crying, screaming, or see someone storm out of class; I went to school with someone who quoted French poets in French and wouldn't translate; you'll always find people chirping about their accomplishments. During my first workshop--when my writing meant the world to me and I had no idea what I was doing--the girl beside me asked if I'd been published before she even introduced herself. That's it, I thought, I'm totally unqualified for this. I later learned that a friend of her mother's made her "publications" on Print Shop. Geesh. Just remember: the more you can roll with all this, the better a workshop will go for you.

Local Workshop Opportunities

Your local universities or community colleges probably offer workshops (look for introductory creative writing classes), and you can probably find one at an arts/writer's center in your neighborhood. You might even find one meeting at your local coffee shop.

Writer's Conferences

If you're willing to shell out some money, you could spend a couple of weeks at a writers conference. They're sort of like summer camps for adults, wherein you'll be immersed in workshops, readings and lectures on writing. They even offer work-study opportunities for less-established writers. Look into The Breadloaf Writers Conference near Middlebury, Vermont and the Sewanee Writers Conference at the University of the South in Tennessee.

Creative Writing Programs

If you're looking to make a more serious run at writing, you should consider applying to Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) programs. Most are two year programs (though some one year programs are out there). Workshops form the backbone of the curriculum, but most schools also require you to take literature courses related to your genre, the idea being that a strong literary background helps make a good writer.

Where should I apply?

Look carefully at schools before applying, and try to find some that suit your goals. The University of Iowa hosted the first writing program, and it remains one of the most renowned, but it also had a reputation for fostering competitiveness that can overwhelm a writer. Columbia University has a terrific faculty, but I've heard that financial assistance is harder to come by than at other schools. Do your research and pick schools that suit you. If there are contemporary writers you admire, you should look to see if (and where) they're teaching. Be sure to check on their accessibility. How many classes do they teach each year? Are you guaranteed a spot in their class?

A few programs allow you to work on your degree from home. The Warren Wilson program, run out of Warren Wilson College in Asheville North Carolina, is highly regarded and only requires you to be on campus for a short period of time.

How much does this cost?

Since poets aren't expected to make money with their degree, programs are cognizant of ways to alleviate costs. A school usually offers a combination of fellowships and teaching assistantships--wherein you teach introductory writing or composition classes. In my experience, the programs come close to paying for themselves.

Do I have to be published to get in?

Even the top MFA programs accept unpublished or scarcely published students--judgment is primarily based on the quality of work submitted. That said, being published helps. Check in next week and we'll talk about how to start publishing.

Come back every Sunday for more from John Lundberg.

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