Ray Bradbury believed that “You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers.”
Meanwhile and on another continent, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were academics in every sense of the word.
Do you need a formal advanced education — such as a Masters of Fine Arts — to be a writer? This question always makes me a little crazy, because the answer is so obvious.
You know you don’t, because there are lots of writers who prove that it’s not necessary every day.
But there’s more to that Bradbury quote: “The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”
In the great, ongoing debate — to MFA or not to MFA— hardly anyone talks about the fact that it isn’t a choice between an expensive, formal education and no education at all.
It’s a choice between that university degree and undertaking a Bradbury Education. That is, creating a do-it-yourself voyage of discovery. Lots of writers do this instinctively just by living interesting lives, reading hungrily, and learning without putting any kind of label on it.
But just like some people sign on for a few semesters of dedicated university study, maybe you’d like to create your own Bradbury Education.
I’ve created a guide for developing your own year-long curriculum.
A note: because I’m a writer and my education reflects that, this post is skewed toward writers, but it could be used for literally any type of study.
You could also adjust the intensity to suit your season of life. For instance, if you have young children or a demanding job, you might tone it down. In fact, I spend some time every December I pick a subject and plan a lower-key version of a Bradbury Education for myself for the upcoming year.
If you’re in a place where you could consider putting more time into learning, and especially if you are in a place in your writing career where you’re ready to take things to the next level, you can ramp it up and plan a real DIY MFA experience for yourself.
The plan below assumes that you’ll be able to spend about five hours a week reading and writing, plus at least one weekend twice a year more fully focused on learning.
What’s involved in an MFA?
I graduated from the low residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College with an degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2018. I did undergraduate work in Goddard College’s low-residency BFA program.
In a low-residency program like this, you have a short period (usually eight to ten days) of intense work on campus, followed by several months of reading, writing, and study at home.
Here are the most important things that you get out this type of program.
- Time and space dedicated to writing, reading, and study.
- A mentor.
- A community of writers.
- A guided reading list, with the requirement of keeping a bibliography.
- Assigned work, with deadlines.
- A creative thesis at the end of the program.
- Intensive residencies.
- A degree.
If a degree is important to you, then you’ll need to enroll at an accredited college or university.
The good news is that if you decide that you’d be happy with a Bradbury-style education — who needs a degree, anyway? — then all of the rest is something you can put together for yourself for a fraction of the cost of a traditional education.
Like the man said, even for the cost of a library card — although I’ll give you some ideas, in case you have the means and want to put a little bit more into it than that.
What will you study?
“Writing” is too broad. It encompasses the whole universe. You need to narrow it down. Tighten the lens.
Choose a genre: fiction, creative non-fiction, writing for children, poetry, screenwriting.
Or niche down more tightly: A specific author or time period, perhaps. In 2019, I’ve been studying the author and screenwriter William Goldman.
It’s entirely up to you. My advice is that if you’re a newer writer, go with a genre. If you have some experience and you’re already well-versed in your genre, maybe focus in on something more specific.
Choose a course of study for your year.
Think about what you want to learn.
When you consider your own writing and especially your course of study, where do you need the most work?
Maybe you want to learn about a type of writing that’s new to you.
Or maybe you want to learn to write in a specific genre— mystery or political thriller or middle grade novels.
Maybe you want to improve a specific part of your writing. For instance, you might want to learn about world building or how to write better dialogue.
This might also be a question you want to answer. Where is the line between genre and literary fiction? Or what makes some children’s books cross over to adult readers?
You might also decide you want to spend a year learning how to do a very specific style of writing. Maybe you want to learn to write memoir or travel essays.
Choosing what you want to learn will help you pick your books and focus your study.
Decide what you want to learn about your course of study this year.
What work will you produce?
Choose a project for the year. Think of this like a thesis — a big project that reflects the work you’ll do all year. Knowing this at the beginning will make it easier for you to choose your curriculum.
Here are some examples. By the end of the year you could:
- Produce twelve finished, polished poems, essays, or short stories (one a month.)
- Write 48,000 words toward a book manuscript (4000 words per month.)
- A screenplay.
This project should be big and a little scary. Something that you’ll have to work on all year and focus your efforts toward.
If you were in a traditional program, you’d have monthly deadlines and the threat of not graduating hanging over your head. Since you won’t have that, you’ll have to be disciplined enough to stay on track by yourself.
Assign yourself a big project for the year. Think about how you’ll divide the work up monthly.
Choose your books.
This is the fun part. Or at least it is for me. It’s the indulgent part.
The best thing my MFA program gave me was absolute freedom to read a lot without any guilty feeling that I should be doing anything else. It was wonderful.
When you’re creating your reading list, think about these things:
- Don’t be afraid of re-reading favorites, especially if they fit what you want to learn. You’ll get something new from them when you read them through the lens of your curriculum.
- Choose some classics.
- Choose some new books, too.
- Remember what you want to learn, then choose books that will help you with that goal.
- Read one craft book a month.
Read outside of your comfort zone. Read books that are difficult — that you can only take in sips instead of big gulps. Read children’s books that you wouldn’t normally pick up. Read classics. Read trashy novels. Read authors you love and authors you’ve never heard of.
The best part of being in an MFA is broadening your horizons. Remember that when you’re choosing your books.
When I was at Goddard College, the bulk of the residency was spent creating the reading list for our semester study plans. Don’t rush this process. Really put some effort and thought into it. Justify to yourself why each book made the list. How will it add to your study?
A good rule of thumb is to choose three books a month, with one of them being a writing craft book.
When you’re reading your craft book, by the way, it’s better to read part of it deeply and do the exercises than to skim the whole thing and not implement anything you learn.
As you’re reading, approach the book like a writer. Take notes. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t and try to learn why.
Keeping a running annotated bibliography over the course of my MFA program was one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever completed. I highly recommend it. Keep a record of the book title and author and notes on what you learned from it.
Choose three books a month and make one of them a craft book. Keep an annotated bibliography over the course of the year.
Take a class.
In fact, take two if you can. Cut your year into semesters. Taking a class will give you the chance to learn in a concentrated way, like you would at a residency in an MFA program.
There are lots of ways to do this.
- Sign up for a class at a local college or university. Many have community education programs that offer non-credit writing courses at low cost.
- Is there a writer’s group in your area that offers classes or workshops?
- Attend a writer’s conference.
- Many authors offer online writing courses you can pay for. You can pay for a whole year of Master Class, for instance, for less than $200.
- There are free courses online as well. Here’s one I teach about plotting a novel.
If you can’t afford or find a class, here’s a way to create your own. Set aside as much time as you can. A weekend at least. Three or four days would be better. Clear your calendar so that you can spend most of every day focused on studying, like you would if you were in an intensive class.
Choose a craft book written by a master. Some of my favorites are Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, Stephen King’s On Writing, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering The Craft, and Walter Dean Myer’s Write Now! Here’s How.
Read it and do the work. If you can gather a couple of writer friends to do it with you, even better. Workshop the exercises with each other.
How to workshop:
Use video chat if you can’t be together in person. Each writer in turn reads their work out loud, then sits quietly for a set amount of time (usually about twenty minutes) while the other writers discuss. Then there are a few minutes for the writer being workshopped to ask and answer questions before it’s the next writer’s turn.
Find opportunities to take writing classes this year. If you can find, choose two and use your classes to divide your year into two ‘semesters.’
If you can’t find traditional classes, design your own.
Find a mentor.
This is the hardest part, because it can be scary. And since it’s hard, it’s easy to skip. I hope you won’t though.
There are a couple of ways of going about finding a mentor.
If you have the means, you can hire one for a year for a fraction of the cost of a year of university tuition. Look for someone who works as a coach or teacher in the field you’re studying. Even hiring someone to spend an hour or two a month offering you feedback on your work could be invaluable and might be less expensive than you think.
If you have a know someone who would make a good mentor, you could just ask them. The key here is to be judicious. Most people are pretty protective of their time and energy. This is especially true if they’re in a position where lots of people want to do what they do, so they are asked for help a lot.
Rather than coming at someone with a heavy ask that might result in a knee-jerk rejection, maybe try a very specific question that they can easily answer without feeling overwhelmed.
Instead of: Will you mentor me for a year?
Try something like this: I’m trying to learn how to write better dialogue. Which writer do you think writes the best dialogue?
And this is key. When they answer with advice follow it, then get back to them and let them know how it helped you. It feels good to know that you’ve helped someone. And it feels very good to actually have your advice acted on. Give those gifts to your mentor and they’ll be happy to continue to help you.
Remember that you can learn from someone who is only a little bit ahead of you. One of my most treasured mentors is another writer who has been my critique partner for fifteen years. See if you can find another writer who is at your level or perhaps slightly more experienced than you who would be interested working with you this year. I like this site for finding a partner.
If there’s a chapter of a national writing group near you, like Romance Writers of America or the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, their monthly meetings will be led by more experienced writers who will be willing to answer your questions and give you advice. There will probably also be opportunities for you to be workshopped and get feedback on your work.
Make a conscious effort to seek out mentors. Ask specific questions that can be answered without overwhelming your potential mentor. Look for a critique partner and research chapters of national writing groups near you.
If you have the means, research the possibility of hiring a professional mentor for the year.
Find your people.
Maybe the best part of being in an MFA program is the other writers. In the best case scenario, you become family. Everyone cheers each other on as they work and, as a group, start to take on the world.
That didn’t happen for me in my MFA program and it’s one of the great disappointments of my life. But it did during my low-residency BFA program at Goddard College. Ten years later, I’m still in touch with many of the writers from my time there.
The good news is that there are writers everywhere. Your people are out there!
- Join a local writing group.
- If you can’t find a local writing group, start one.
- Join an active online writing group, and be active in it.
- Let your friends and family know that you’d like to connect with other writers.
- Some of the things you do to find a mentor and take a class will help you find your people.
At least once a month, make it a habit to be around other writers. Writing at a coffee shop is classic. Set up a writers’ night out — invite your writer friends to meet up for a dinner. Go to a writer’s group meeting. Have lunch or a video chat with your critique partner.
Writing can be a very solitary, introverted activity. Make a real effort to connect with other writers this year.
Get out of your comfort zone.
This may come as a surprise, but a year where you’re learning more than you have in a decade isn’t supposed to be comfortable.
So it’s okay if sometime in the next twelve months you just want to give it up and go back to whatever you’ve been doing. Status quo is like a siren song when things get tough.
There will be a day when you’ll hear a little voice tell you don’t have time for all this reading and writing. You can’t meet up with your writing group this month. You can’t take a week to go to a conference or spend the time to add to your bibliography. You don’t need to be rejected any more.
You’re an adult with more important things to do.
Without the pressure of tuition or a degree on the line, that little voice holds a lot of sway. So it’s okay that you’ll hear it. It’s normal.
It’s fantastic and brave and completely kickass when you don’t give in to it.
This year, get out of your comfort zone. Read books you wouldn’t normally read. Plan a your year and then think outside the box to figure out how to make it happen.
Prioritize your Bradbury-style education the way you’d prioritize a traditional program.
My MFA experience included a residency in Jamaica, learning from local writers. It was the showstopper of the whole program. Plan a showstopper for your year.
It doesn’t have to be a big international trip. There are probably experiences near you that you could take advantage of.
For me, a weekend camping trip, relying on my own abilities and writing alone in the woods would be incredible and definitely outside my comfort zone.
Maybe just taking a trip to a new city or spending some time deeply exploring your own town could kick you out of your comfort zone.
This year, make a commitment to do at least one thing that aren’t sure you can do well. One thing that you don’t feel quite ready for. Enter a contest. Send a short story to a magazine. Apply for a spot in a competitive conference.
Rejection is part of a writer’s life. If fear of being rejected has kept you from putting your work out in the world, make a commitment to starting your collection this year.
My suggestion is to challenge yourself to be rejected at least once a month for the next year. Send one query letter, enter one contest, pitch one idea.
Don’t forget this: the only way your work can be accepted is if you put it in a position where it can be rejected.
Choose at least one book to read this year that makes you uncomfortable. Plan an experience that will force you out of your comfort zone. Do at least one thing that requires you to do something you aren’t sure you can do well.
Put your work in a position to be rejected at least once a month this year.
A last word from Ray Bradbury.
Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. And then see what happens. — Ray Bradbury
Three years ago, I made that Ray Bradbury quote my motto and it changed my life. Since then I’ve sold two novels to a major publisher and created a business that lets me be a full time writer.
I’ve also learned more in the last three years than I did in the thirty years before that. Thank you, Mr. Bradbury.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s represented by Elizabeth Bennett at Transatlantic Literary Agency and her most recent book is The Astonishing Maybe. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.