Lessons learned while my partner completed an MFA in Creative Writing

At the end of March 2012, my partner DP finished his MFA in Creative Writing. His thesis was an original television show. Now that I think of it, I should have thrown him a virtual graduation party. (Wait, it’s not too late… but that’s a separate post!)

Over the past three years, I have often felt like I was enrolled in the same degree program. Here’s what I have learned:

  1. Writers write.
    Writers write on a regular basis (possibly every day) whether they feel like it or not. That’s how one gets better at writing and how one has something to publish. This is much harder than it seems.

  2. Get it all down on the page.
    Thanks to Natalie Goldberg for this one.

  3. Use the words you know.
    These are good words. You probably don’t need any more.

  4. Don’t worry about which genre your work falls into.
    That is not your job. Your job is to help the story unfold word by word.

  5. Write with your ideal readers in mind.
    Identify them… and then write for them. I write with about five people in mind including DP and my sister Megan. They are all smart, funny people (mostly women) who love words. They have all been supportive of my writing and I know that they would read anything that I wrote. Thinking about them makes it easier for me to get my words down on the paper.

Over the past couple of years, I have heard several (perfectly lovely) people say, “I don’t want to read my friend’s book just in case it isn’t good.” I am not writing for these people because their discomfort and worries about the quality of (my) writing are not helpful.

  1. Write with a tender heart. Edit with a sword.
    After you have completed the first draft, you may need/want to set aside your manuscript for a little while because the next step is going to require your most objective work thus far as well as a combination of compassion and savagery. To improve your story, you will probably have to make things harder for your characters than you did the first time around. You may have to prevent your heroine from meeting her true love or from finding the cure for cancer so early in the story. Perhaps she doesn’t fall in love at all. We edit with the story in mind – not the comfort of our characters as much as we may like them. William Faulkner claimed that, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

  2. Embrace peer review.
    Ask other writers to read your work. (Your lovely partner may not always be the ideal peer reviewer.) Listen carefully and ask lots of questions so that you can understand why certain aspects of your piece are not working for them. Decide which recommendations are helpful to your work and edit your work accordingly. You cannot please everyone or you’ll end up with tapioca pudding.

  3. Send your work out into the world.
    Oh, it is going to be totally scary and people (somewhere between one and MANY) are going to reject your work. It’s not personal (or maybe it is) but in the end, a writer can choose to accept every rejection as a simple confirmation of her magician status. You created an entire world out of nothing. Congratulations and keep writing!

  4. Know that there are many ways to be a good writer.
    Some writers have brilliant story ideas – the arc of a story appears to them intact – while other authors breathe life into their characters like gods. Some writers are able to engineer life-altering obstacles that force their characters to grow like crazy… making the ride suspenseful and exciting for the reader. It has been my experience that many writers are not snobs about other people’s writing because they know exactly how hard it is.

  5. Ignore the haters.
    There are going to be people who dislike and hate your work. They are going to use big words to describe how spectacularly you have failed and there is not one thing you can do about that. Some of this criticism will be fair and some will not be. Perhaps it will help to remember that you have created something new, original and authentic and that you sent it out into the world… an act that required enormous faith and courage on your part. (Maybe it won’t help). Don’t read the bad reviews. They’ll haunt you like a revenge-seeking ghost and fill you with anger and bitterness at a time when you need that energy for the next book.

  6. Start the next project.

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p>Thanks to DP and to the University of British Columbia for the lessons.

What have you learned about writing… novels, blog posts, graduate dissertations… whatever. Please share it in the comments section below.

2 comments

  1. I think Joss Whedon has gone to the school of William Faulkner. He is always killing off his characters. 😉 I have been reading obsessively about him the last month and of course almost everyone mentions this aspect of his writing. I think number one is the hardest. I write in spurts but not consistently. I need to make a commitment to write everyday –I have the reading part down now i need to work on the writing!

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