You Don’t Need an MFA to Learn to Write Fiction

Betsy Robinson
5 min readAug 29, 2021

Books to Inspire Good Writing — Learning by Osmosis

I didn’t go to grad school because frankly it never occurred to me. At the age most people enroll in MFA programs, I was zipping around NYC auditioning for acting roles and writing short stories and plays in my alone time. I didn’t talk much about the writing, but once I mentioned it to a colleague when I had a menial job at an arts council and he asked why I didn’t write a novel. Glibly but honestly I replied, “Because I’m too young.” I knew I had so much to learn that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, so certainly I wasn’t mature enough to write a novel.

Now that I’m an old writer with some published novels, even though I still struggle to get my work seen and have none of the foundation contacts that MFA students start building during their student days, I’m still glad I took a different route.

I read voraciously and though some MFA grads produce good work out of the gate, I find many such first novels to be a little forced and self-consciously literary — the kind of thing that I associate with workshop students being praised by a teacher and one another for finding their original voice, for crafting esoteric observations, for being imaginative. And this group reinforcement results in a kind of groupspeak of self-conscious vocabulary and “insights” as well as endless stream-of-consciousness literary-sounding lists that I hear in my mind’s ear in the droning monotone affected by certain writers giving readings of their work.

I’ve learned my craft and continue to learn by osmosis — by reading fine writing and getting feedback on my work from individuals I trust. Also, earning my living an editor of other people’s work has been a boon to my own. I notice things as an editor does and, when inspired, steal like a pickpocket, morphing inspiring bits in the throes of my own creation so that you would never recognize their source.

Here are a few books that have been my teachers.

Stoner by John Williams

I reread this every few years. It is the absolute best lesson in using narrative to tell a story. What Williams does with dense narrative seems impossible. He flies through time and can make years pass within a couple of paragraphs. The characters are real. The dialogue perfect. The story heartbreaking but, after four readings, uplifting. It took me that many times to really see this story and what I see is different every time I read it. I learned from writer Steve Almond that the cult of writers who love this book is large, and called “Stoners.” I am one of them and recommend reading the book many times, studying how it’s made after the initial reading.

The Fiddler in the Subway by Gene Weingarten

The introduction is a master class in how to tell the story — the specific mechanics of construction. The book is long nonfiction articles that demonstrate what the introduction describes.

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

This memoir is individual stories that fly and also pull your heart apart. They also teach how to fill out what are essentially small dramatic moments and turn them into a whole story. And what O’Farrell does is not filler. Everything is essential, but she demonstrates how to find it. She illuminates what is right in front of all of us, but we just don’t think to use it. She is also a master of transitions, but that is more apparent in her novels.

The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind, translated from German by John E. Woods

I finished reading this tiny huge book (115 pages) a couple of hours ago and am digesting and reverberating. It is a full-bodied story that is a master class is observing and reporting in flawless literary prose. I want to steal the whole thing even though I never could have written this. However, in time, I’ll be stuck and suddenly think to observe and report the way Süskind does and perhaps I’ll suddenly gush with organic, original descriptive narrative.

Saturday by Ian McEwan

What I want to steal from McEwan is the skill of creating motion through narrative. In this book, I marvel at how motion is created by switching from describing one part of a room to another. Or, in many of his other books, by moving focus from one terrain to another as a person goes somewhere. Large blocks of narrative are never stagnant; they are a rush of energy when written by McEwan.

Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World by Kathleen Dean Moore

This just-published (2021) collection of essays by environmentalist Kathleen Dean Moore sings. There is not an unoriginal word or stereotypical expression to be found. Voice, voice, voice. Beautiful voice abounds here, and if you just wallow in it, it may help you find your own voice. Not by copying or stealing, but by allowing her voice to wake yours up.

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

In my opinion, Lawson is one of the best living novelists we have. She has only written four books, and Crow Lake was the first and still my favorite. Her skill is evoking what is left unsaid in the gaps — the synapses between words, between sentences, in the silent moments. Her books could be easily staged because the subtext and action are conveyed through dialogue and narrative. Never said, but they are vividly there.

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

Every one of Everett’s library of books is different, but what remains the same is his free-flowing imagination. In Not Sidney Poitier he writes a wildly funny and heartbreaking quest for identity. There are so many things to steal and inspire here as far as comic techniques and wild transitions that I wouldn’t know where to begin to list them. Laugh and learn with this book and writer.

The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever

Language! Vocabulary! If you suffer from dull verbs or prosaic adjectives and adverbs, read this and start a vocabulary list. Or use it when you’re writing anything by reading periodically in breaks; short stories are a wonderful break from your own writing. You’re bound to find words you want to lift. Steal away. Much more fun than a thesaurus.

And find your own books. Know where your work is lacking and take note when you are reading a writer who is strong in that area. When you’re reading, study, and file away anything you learn and let it become your own. After good digestion, it will.