Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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April 26, 2021

How To Build Your Own MFA Experience

by Tasha Seegmiller

I just finished my MFA at Pacific University. I had several reasons I went to get this expensive graduate degree, one which is obvious – I wanted to dedicate time to my writing. I wanted to get better. 

But it was expensive. Really expensive. 

And that is a significant reason why many people don’t seriously consider MFA programs. 

While I would never presume to state that that experience can be replicated in whole outside of the dedication that comes from a financial commitment, there are some key things I learned that I will bring into practice throughout my writing career. 

1. Read Well & Critically

If you have any desire to be published, it is essential to keep apprised of the books being published in your genre. That’s one of the first pieces of advice nearly every publishing professional will tell you.

But one of the things I hadn’t thought about before entering my program was the necessity to read adjacent genres as well. For me, that included stories about women in modern society wrestling with similar things but in a different way.

I’m currently writing about a mom of teenagers who is a successful professor and a person of faith, so reading narratives featuring women from different cultures and different faiths proved to really solidify some of the things I wanted to emphasize in my own stories. Some of these included Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum, The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd, and The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall.

I had an advisor who asked what real stories I’d read about people who were similar to my characters. I opted to read Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression by Sally Brampton, and found, for the first time in my life, I was reading many of the same things I’d been feeling as a person who has severe depression and saw the way that language could be used to help explain the unseeable. Since then, I have included works by Anne Lamott, Jenny Lawson, Glennon Doyle, and Emily Nagoski.

Then, I had a couple advisors who suggested a well-informed writer of any genre needs to have experience with some of the foundational books that solidified elements of that genre. It was through this process that I learned my preference in writing leans more literary than I’d originally realized, a funny realization because my love for A Scarlet Letter runs deep and I’ve written a Little Women retelling. This doesn’t mean merely classics either, but if a book has won awards from an entity that you admire, taking the time to read those, to consider why they won is a really valuable use of time.

If you are interested in next-level consideration, I recommend doing a little write-up of books you admire. This isn’t talking about what the book was about, but leaning more into what did the writer do that you admired.

  • Where did they lose your interest?
  • How did they gain it?
  • What passages had language that left you in awe?
  • What do you sometimes struggle to craft that they did well?

2. Study Writing

Along with reading good books, there is a necessity to study how people talk about writing. I think there are some pretty solid benefits to studying both craft (the tools of writing) as well as the fulfillment of writing (the art, the meaning, the efforts of creativity).

Everyone is going to have their own balance here, but too much craft talk can make a writer feel like they are merely an assembly line: insert character, add tension, kill your darlings, save the cat. And too much about the art of writing can leave a person feeling all inspired without much to really show for it.

I’ve heard some people say people at different levels are ready for different books, but once upon a time I was a piano teacher and there is no one – NO ONE – who doesn’t need to practice their scales. Returning to basics frequently, especially as our understanding of art improves continues to unlock parts of art to us.

As such, for craft books, I recommend:

I initially read two of these digitally and have since bought physical copies. They have a lot of depth and intentionality and I needed to mark and underline and ponder.

For inspiration, I recommend Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown (it’s not a book about art, but it is about shame and vulnerability and if an artist hasn’t figured out what to do with that, creation is just going to be harder), and Light the Dark: Writer on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process edited by Joe Fassler.

3. Get Eyes on the Work Regularly

If you’ve been hanging around as a creative for much time at all, you have likely heard or seen what others might say about a work. And a lot of people, when I mention this part, wonder if it was all people tearing everything apart.

There was some of that. BUT! But, when someone starts the critique by saying why they are making the recommendations they are, when someone asks you to lean into your sentences to see if you are over-writing, when they are asking how this scene advances the arc of a character, or when they are questioning why you blew through the emotional peak (ahem, because the character needs to be authentic . . . and I feel super vulnerable writing it . . .and we’re back to Brené Brown . . .) there is something that happens within.

Within my program, there were two kinds of feedback we could receive:

  1. Feedback from peers and advisors in workshop during residence.
  2. Feedback from an advisor who worked with me throughout a semester.

In publishing speak, this could be a critique group and beta readers. Having 3-5 people provide feedback on the same chunk of writing at a time is often hard, and so so valuable. Within my own critique group, we have tried several different methods and found that giving each person a chance to talk without fear of interruption has been the best way. This was also how most of my workshops went.

When reaching out for a beta reader, it is better to start with what you, as the writer, desire for feedback. There are some who think as long as they are saying something, it’s helpful; but if a writer isn’t careful, that feedback requested could derail the whole story.

While there are lots of different reasons people might seek feedback, including sensitivity readers (if you think you might need one, you do), area experts (doctors, police officers, geologists and the like), there is an absolute necessity to also get feedback from people who are writers. They are going to look at your work differently, going to see things other very kind, well-intentioned reader types might gloss over in favor of seeing where the story goes.

The thing to remember about art in general is that you are going to get out of it what you put into it AND (as I like to tell my students) there isn’t a right way to write, but there is a right way to have written. While all of these ideas will enhance the way you are able to think and talk about writing in general, they will also serve as a guide to help you discern what writing methods are going to work for you.

And I think that’s the most valuable thing to learn at all.

Let’s help each other out - what books do you recommend for craft or artful inspiration? And how were you able to find people to give you feedback on your writing?

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About Tasha

Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is an MFA candidate in the Writing Program at Pacific University and teaches composition courses at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a soda shack and cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.

6 comments on “How To Build Your Own MFA Experience”

  1. A useful post in so many ways. Thank you for sharing. Congratulations on your achievement and best wishes for your future in writing.

  2. Hi Tasha,
    The book resources you listed gave me a lot to think about and I added several titles to my books to buy list. (ThriftBooks thanks you, too, as I just put in an order!)

  3. A very thoughtful post. Dissecting books in my sub-genre and outside my genre is a must for me and almost a spoiler as I read. Thanks for sharing your favorite craft books. I congratulate you on your MFA, a dream of mine. And for owning a cotton candy company. How cool is that?

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