The MFA in a Box

MFA on a desk

So now that the whole “New Year, New You” thing has worn off, you’re second guessing your resolution to go back to school for your MFA, aren’t you? You started crunching the numbers. Your mom asked if you were bored. Your dad asked if you were delusional. You opened the FAFSA form, squeaked a tiny peep of horror, and immediately closed it. An advanced degree in creative writing sounded so much better in the champagne twilight of 2013.

As an MFA-seeker myself, I can confirm that if you pursue a traditional MFA, you either are or soon will be all of these things: bored in your old job, broke, and/or delusional. (Though, all irony aside, what a fun club to be a part of!) Luckily, we have a much cheaper shortcut for you, one that can be done on your own time and also in the comfort of your pajamas: The MFA in a Box. More than just inspiration and advice, this is the deep nitty-gritty, a peek onto the killing room floor. Of course nothing can replace the experience of having your work torn to shreds by a gang of disgruntled, scornful but well-meaning peers while you sob silently into your Venti Dark Roast, but reading craft canon will get you halfway there. Fake tortoiseshell glasses and anxiety of influence optional. AWP registration not included.

Aspects of the Novel, by E.M. Forster
Want the Oxbridge cred without all the gloomy weather and academic dress? You can still get the Cambridge lecture experience—of 1927—from none other than E.M. Forster. This craft classic, compiled from a series of lectures delivered at Trinity College in 1927, breaks down the novel into seven fundamentals: story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.

The Art of Fiction, by David Lodge
A critic who is (refreshingly) a successful published novelist himself, Lodge has a revolutionary idea here with his collection of essays: You can understand how literature works by looking at literature. Crazy, right? In a way meant to be accessible to the general reading public (the essays first appeared in the Independent on Sunday and the Washington Post), Lodge examines short excerpts from major British and American works with an eye toward stylistic devices and techniques, like point of view, sense of place, or repetition.

How Fiction Works, by James Wood
If Lodge gets you going, you’ll really enjoy this thin volume from one of the most popular (if that word can here be applied) literary critics of our time. (Wood, who is married to author Claire Messud, has moved from The Guardian to The New Republic to, most recently, The New Yorker.) Riffing on Henry James’s oft-quoted assertion that “the house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” Wood’s first line is a personal favorite: “The house of fiction has many windows but only two or three doors.” You’ll want your highlighter nearby.

Narrative Design, by Madison Smartt Bell
A former professor at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Bell nonetheless has his qualms about the pedagogy of creative writing. Here’s how he introduces his workshops: “Assume that when your work is being discussed, about 90 percent of what you hear will be useless to you and irrelevant to what you have done.” Nevertheless, after acknowledging with some degree of mystical thrall the value of the unconscious mind in the creative process, he goes on to explore, with textual examples and in-depth analysis, the nuts and bolts of linear and modular design. This is a book for both teachers and students of writing, though you might argue all are really the latter.

Burning Down the House, by Charles Baxter
Baxter is a writer’s writer, and a number of terms you’d hear bandied about in a writing workshop can be found in this collection of essays based on a series of lectures Baxter gave to an MFA program, cryptic terms like “defamiliarization” and “talking forks.” His gimlet-eyed commentary on the state of contemporary fiction (or semi-contemporary, as the book was originally published in 1997) inspires as much as it skewers.

The Art of Subtext, by Charles Baxter
I hate to include two books by one author, but Baxter kicked off the fantastic “The Art of” series with this title. Each book, all edited by Baxter, handles a specific challenge to the writer (description, syntax, intimacy). Another standout is The Art of Time in Fiction, by Joan Silber.

A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf
Every writer (notice I did not say every female writer) should read this book. The seminal work was born from Woolf’s 1928 series of lectures on Women and Fiction at Cambridge University’s female-only colleges. She argued that a woman must have an income and room of her own to create. Historically, politically, and creatively important.

Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose
Though many an MFA will try to impress you with the number of books he or she has read, reading in the service of writing is about quality, not quantity. That means regarding each paragraph, each sentence, each word, and always, in the back of your mind, considering how and why the author did it this way and not that. In this “Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them,” Prose (oh, to be born with that destiny) teaches readers and writers how to slow down and pay attention.

 What’s your favorite book on writing?

  • Catie C

    Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott! It’s amazing and breaks down everything from poetry writing to how to tackle the terror of attempting to write a novel. I bought it for my first ever real writing class in high school and it has been more or less my Bible ever since. The best part is that it’s honest. “Shitty First Drafts” is my favorite chapter title ever.