Quarterly Column Archive
MFA on Your Couch
You don't need an MFA to be a successful writer. But you do need to study the craft (which is what MFA programs help writers do). And to study the craft you need to read far and wide, and you need to read like a writer.
Read like a writer
Mostly we're taught to read like English lit majors, but that's not the best way for writers to get under the skin of a story, novel, or poem. English lit majors look at things like theme and symbolism. But to become a better writer it's important to look at things like point of view, form, tense, syntax, rhythm, paragraph or line breaks, etc.
And it's important to read widely to really understand the elements of your craft and to see what's possible. This will not only be eye opening and inspiring, but it will also help you see what your own work is trying to do and where it's falling down. The other reason to read like a writer and to read widely is because a writer learns to write, in part, via osmosis.
Here are some books that can help you read like a writer:
Read good interviews
Dave Eggers says in his book blurb for The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1: "The Paris Review interviews have always provided the best look into the minds and work ethics of great writers and when read together constitute the closest thing to an MFA that you can get while sitting alone on your couch."
I agree. Every Paris Review (PR) interview gets into the writer's craft and process, and you don't need to have read the writer's work to profit. (Though you may be inspired to afterward.)
Here are some of my favorite PR interviews (check your library for back issues to hunt down the following):
You can also read a bunch of PR interviews by buying a book of PR interviews. (Volumes I and II were recently released, and there have been quite a few of the collected interviews published together in books over the decades. Check your library and used book stores.)
Winter's coming. Burrow with some of the above. And don't forget to write (as they say at 826, speaking of Dave Eggers).