Toward the end of every summer, my school would host an open house to students and parents which also served as an opportunity to buy books for the year. I stood with my mother in my soon-to-be third-grade classroom and met my teacher, Mrs. Burns. The classroom promised fun learning for the upcoming semester, and I reunited with friends whom I haven’t seen over the summer.
“Mom, do you think I’ll pass third grade?” I said nervously.
“Of course you will!” My mother is my biggest cheerleader, but at that moment, I didn’t believe her. I could see myself scoring large, red Fs on each assignment, and sitting in third grade until I was 30. Obviously, that didn’t happen and it’s quite a melancholy thought for an 8-year-old, but I’ve always been afraid of failure and invalidation. Or as the Sorting Hat told Harry, I suffered from “a thirst to prove yourself.”
I didn’t ask my mother every year if she thought I would pass each grade (I sincerely thought about it) but the fear was always there. I wanted to succeed and be recognized, something I thought only school could provide me. As an adult, I’ve learned that I am measured by more than my academic endeavors, but by my actions, my choices, and my relationships. Despite this knowledge, I still define my success by my scholastic achievements.
When someone asks me to describe myself, I usually rattle off my degrees and organizations in which I’m involved: a Bachelor’s in English (graduated Cum Laude), Paralegal Certificate (graduated with a 4.0, member of Phi Theta Kappa), former editor of an electronic Paralegal Student Association newsletter, and I’m a Minnesota Certified Paralegal. So, essentially a summary of my resume.
But I’m so much more than my accomplishments.
Now that you have a frame of reference for my love of academia, I can talk about my latest dilemma: the Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing or the “MFA.” I’m not sure if I’m having a manic episode or a legitimate epiphany, but I have a passion for writing and reading. Actually, if I could compare it to anything, I would call it a possession. When I become interested in something, I must buy every book I can find on the topic as well as attend a few classes. I bury myself in the subject matter until I’m an expert.
For example, when I decided to adopt cats, I started watching My Cat from Hell nonstop until I became a cat behaviorist. A bonafide cat whisperer. I get this zeal from my father who dabbles in every area of crafting from cross-stitching to painting figurines. When he finds a new hobby – in this phase its quilting – he buys the books and materials he needs and dives into the project. This isn’t a bad trait to inherit.
I did my research once I made the commitment to start writing after years of contemplating book ideas. After doing research, I discovered the MFA. Naturally, the idea appealed to me because graduate school involves intensive study among like-minded peers. Instructors would guide me along my journey and reveal the secrets to success. Or so I hoped in my romanticizing phase. Recently, I visited a local college with an exciting program. Students attend a ten-day residency each summer where they immerse themselves in writing seminars and courses meeting other students who share their passion. Over the course of two years, I would study under a mentor in my particular genre, and choose a second genre to become well-rounded. I would produce a set number of pages each month which would culminate in a manuscript worth publishing for my thesis.
The admission counselor showed me around campus, and my undergraduate days rushed back to me. Students carried books into each building, the busy quad, and auditoriums packed with freshmen beginning their educational journey.
Then it hit me.
I could do this myself. Because of the Internet – which still amazes me – I could find the materials and mentors to satisfy my lust for knowledge. Stephen King doesn’t have an MFA. J.K. Rowling doesn’t have an MFA. I know everyone has their own path to success, whether it be personally or financially, but is the MFA a path for me? It’s a relatively new degree, and writing is a different animal when it comes to credentials. And the $30,000 price tag may have something to do with my decision.
I’m still on the fence about whether or not to go to graduate school, but the application process inspired me to start a short story as well as a string of other ideas. However, if I end up forgoing the formal education route, I’ve decided to come up with my own materials and rules. So without further adieu and exposition, here are my materials, reasoning, etc.
a. Writer’s Digest – This website has invaluable resources for a beginner like me. Everything from how to draft query letters to creative writing prompts for when plagued by writer’s block. Writer’s Digest also offers classes and hosts two annual conventions for writers, which literary agents and other writers attend.
b. On Writing by Stephen King – Read it. Live it. Read it again. King wrote this while he recovered from a vehicle striking him. Even though he says it is not a memoir, I consider it half autobiography/half commentary on writing. I found myself exclaiming, “YES!” to many of his points made throughout the book.
c. Just Write by James Scott Bell – While On Writing deals with the rules of writing, Just Write seems to deal with all facets of writing and the publishing business. I’m only 50 pages in, but Bell discusses what makes a writer, and how to grab the readers attention so they pick up your book in the first place.
d. Jane Friedman – A blog I found offering writing and publishing advice. It even has in-depth advice regarding self-publishing, a possible avenue for me.
e. MasterClass – These are classes taught (well, maybe more of a figurehead) by a successful person in each art form. For instance, Aaron Sorkin teaches screenwriting, while James Patterson teaches writing. Say what you will about his writing – my husband certainly did – but he is extremely successful. According to the course handbook, Patterson covers the fundamentals such as fueling a passion for writing, outlining a novel, and constructing a scene. This may take away from the romance of writing, but for a plotter, this is perfect for me. Through my research, I’ve found that there are two kinds of people when it comes to writing: plotter and pansters. I am definitely not a panster.
While all of these resources have different views on writing, I found that they all have one point in common: a writer is one who writes. If you don’t sell a million books, you’re still a writer. If you don’t even sell one book, you’re still a writer. Write every day, or often, and you can call yourself a writer.
What are some of your writing habits? Do you have any resources to add to the list?
Nicole C. Thomas
Nicole is a writer working on her first novel Samantha Darkened, created during NaNoWriMo 2016. She writes weekly posts regarding books, writing, and mental illness. She has an interesting sense of humor which includes a love of alliteration and puns.