This isn’t me crapping on MFA (a Master of Fine Arts) degrees or everyone who has worked hard to get one. I know quite a few damn good people who have one they can add to their resume. This is about elitism and misguided entitlement. You can expand this from the microcosm of writing to all things great and small in our society.
For years, I’ve heard select MFA holders put down writers who they believe don’t possess such a degree, referring to them as hacks or worse. To them, only he or she who wears the MFA crown has the necessary skills to put words to paper. The rest of us are here to be dazzled by their command of the English language and storytelling prowess. I came across such a troll recently who lambasted my writing on Goodreads, basically saying I didn’t have the skills to be a good writer because it was apparent I never received the proper education to do the very thing I’ve been working at for over a decade. I read it and laughed, then looked up their name to find their writing credits. I wasn’t surprised to find zippo. (By the way, I’m a college graduate who never scored less than a 90 in English my entire life.)
Truth be told, the review didn’t make me angry. My skin is thicker than an elephant’s hide. If you’re going to do this for a living, you can’t let the bad or even the good reviews get to your head. What does make my blood boil is when I see a trend that deeply hurts earnest, honest writers.
An MFA degree doesn’t make you a writer, just as going to astronaut camp doesn’t qualify you for a stint on the ISS. In many cases, an MFA degree does put you in some serious debt, hoping to strike it rich in an industry that is pretty darn parsimonious when it comes to paychecks. As an author friend once said, better to learn a trade and be a fucking plumber.
I learned all I needed to know about becoming a writer from a chance meeting with the great Elmore Leonard. It was the late 90s and I was at a two day writers conference in New York City. I’d spent money I didn’t have to be there, hoping to learn from those who had scaled the mountain. I was in a classroom, sitting in the back because I had a hard time finding it and was almost late. A famous thriller author was giving a talk about the publishing process, but it was really an examination of the neurosis of a writer who never felt as if his stuff was good enough.
A small, older man sat next to me during the class. At one point, he leaned over and asked if I’d spent a lot of money to be there. I gave a quick answer, wishing he’d leave me be. He then said, “You see all these people? None of them will ever be writers. Don’t waste your money. You really want to be a writer?” Slightly annoyed, I said, “Of course.”
He said, “Then go home. Read a ton. Then write a ton. That’s all there is to it.”
I thanked him for the advice and shifted my attention back to the real author in the front of the room. When the class ended, the old man shuffled out and I headed for the next session. When lunch came, I grabbed a table by the podium, chatting with a world famous bestseller. Imagine my surprise when they brought that older man up to be the key speaker. It was Elmore Leonard!
I realized in that moment that I’d just gotten invaluable wisdom from a man who’d published more books than every writer at the conference combined. Who the hell was I not to listen to him? I vowed that day to never attend a writing conference. I was already a voracious reader, but I stepped up my writing game. Read a ton. Write a ton. I could do this.
And I did. As have so many others, all without the benefit of an MFA. You don’t need any high falutin’ qualifications to be a writer, other than a command of your native language, imagination, and limitless passion. I don’t care what degrees you have and don’t have, and neither do editors. Tell a damn good story they think will sell.
If you think your MFA makes you a better writer than someone who gets paid to write and publishes book after book, it’s time to dispel yourself of that delusion. That degree, especially if you’re not writing and publishing, is worth as much as the paper it was printed on. You are not entitled to a damn thing. You need to earn it. That means get off your high horse and get down in the mud and muck and write. Then go bust your hump finding someone to publish your work. Stop criticizing those who have accomplished the very thing that inspired you to get that degree. You are not the elite. You’re just a regular person who spent more on school.
Over the years, I’ve found that writers rarely criticize other writers because we all share the same story, the same grind. We not only know how the sausage is made – our hands are in it day after day. So next time you want to use your MFA to tear down another person, take a good, hard look at yourself and like most opinions, keep it to yourself. Writing is a great equalizer. You’d know it if you did it.
Just as I discovered there was more than one way to put my infant daughter’s crib together (to hell with those decorations written in an alien language!), there is more than one way to build a writer. Assembly usually takes a mere two decades. Batteries are not included, nor are they necessary.
This particular horror writer was not pushed by a Great Santini to become a wordsmith. My parents were quite happy to let me find my own dreams and goals and ways to achieve them. Looking back, I’ve tried to put all the connected, some loosely, pieces of the puzzle that eventually made me whole. So, here is how I was ‘built’. I’m interested to hear how others who do what I do came to be.
First, there were books everywhere in my house. I had a nice little library as a kid. My father would read anything he could get his hands on, so books were in just about every room. In school, my parents always let me buy books from the Scholastic catalogue. Nothing was better than the day the books came in and I waited feverishly for my name to be called so I could grab my booty for the semester. I was taught indirectly that books were to be treasured and sought after. Surrounded by all those books, reading became a vocation of sorts.
Issues of Time magazine were always in the bathroom. I would read them even when I was too young to understand what the articles were saying. It gave me an appreciation for a whole new structure of writing, and I learned a hell of a lot about politics. The first politician I wanted to be president was a guy named John Anderson who ran as an independent in the 1980 campaign. So sparked a lifetime of voting for underdogs. Ralph Nader anyone?
My father loved movies, therefore I loved movies. And the movies we loved the most were horror movies. We caught all of the Universal monsters on PBS when they aired. He took me to the drive in and the movie theater (with a balcony!) by our house all of the time. We watched Chiller Theatre together and Kolchak and The Twilight Zone. Half of my room was decorated with pages torn from Fangoria and Famous Monsters. Those movies didn’t just give me chills. They laid the foundation for my knowledge of the genre. I knew the tropes before I knew what the word trope even meant. I watched the progression of horror from the 1920s to the 1980s and I knew what worked and what didn’t. It came as no surprise to anyone that when I started writing, I pulled my car into the horror lane.
Until I was about 15, I thought I was going to be a artist, not a writer. My great uncle was an artist, even doing a lot of commercial art. That red French’s mustard flag – that was him. When I visited my grandparents, grandma would roll out what looked like brown butcher paper and give me a box of well-worn crayons. I would lay on the floor drawing tremendous space battles with star ships from Star Wars going mano-y-mano with Vipers from Battlestar Galactica. These scenes would be two feet high by three or four feet long. I wanted to be a comic artist. At age 9, I even created a one panel comic called Socks and Locks. It was about two buddies, ala Abbot and Costello, though with one of them being a psychopath. I submitted it to the paper and they gave me encouragement to keep working. Nowadays, they might have sent me to a shrink. I drew every character in the funny pages and comics. In grammar school, a friend and I created Mini-Hulk comics, with a diminutive and angry Hulk battling pencils and fingers and the whims of the artist.
My heart was set on going to the Rhode Island School of Design, but I plateaued before it came time to apply. I got so frustrated drawing hands! Oh, and girls came into the picture. But creativity was firmly implanted in my DNA.
Borrowing my grandmother’s typewriter, I started writing a series of short, post-apocalyptic stories on onion skin paper. They were all inspired by Escape from New York. If I couldn’t be Snake Pliskin in real life, I could make myself a close knockoff in stories. I then tried my hand at poetry, banging out four Zombie Moon poems. Again, I was a huge fan of Dawn of the Dead and if I was gonna sit down and write poetry, it better damn well have zombies. I wrote a lot my junior and senior years, even penning a story called Night Prayers that scared the wits out of my girlfriend, who later became my wife. I wonder if I still have a copy…
From the moment I got my first tape recorder for Christmas, I became an international radio star. Well, at least in my mind. I recorded hundreds of interview shows, radio serials and movie sendups, often playing multiple characters. I would rewrite entire films on the fly, acting out a bevy of male and female players. It taught me to be a great mimic, and whether I knew it or not, I was writing stories, just on tape instead of paper. And as far as I know, all of those tapes are gone.
By the time college came around, I was only writing papers to be graded. But being on the college radio station gave me a great creative outlet. I studied to be in radio, but just a few years after I graduated, the world went digital and everything I learned was obsolete overnight. So, I went to work for the phone company as a customer service representative. That should have been the death of my creative life.
But it wasn’t. I was hired along with a dude named Norm (whose Severed Press book, HUNGRY THINGS, is a hoot) who would reignite my creative spirit. Watching and listening to him talk about writing got me off my sorry ass to give it a try.
Little did I know, it would become a lifelong addiction. Luckily, I had done a lot of the heavy lifting all my life – by READING! Reading anywhere from 50 – 100 books a year gave me a subliminal master class on structure, plot, dialogue and all of the little things that go into writing a book.
I may not have been puffing away at a bubble pipe at five and struggling to pen the great American novel all of my life, but there was always creativity and a love of books. Whether it was drawing, watching movie, enacting radio dramas on a tape recorder in my room or writing bad poetry on paper so thin, it disintegrated a couple of years later, they were all outlets for an overactive imagination. Writers are dreamers. There are many ways to make those dreams come to life. When you marry the dream with a passion for the written word, well, no matter how many detours you take, you just might find yourself banging away at a laptop or going through legal pads like bath tissue. In my opinion, trying your hand at a myriad of different things will ultimately make you a better writer.
So, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
As I struggle today with getting my butt in gear to hit my own writing goal, I thought, why not share some of the things that have helped me write 24 books over the past 7 years? No one ever said writing is easy. Okay, this guy I call Three Chins said it once, but he’s full of beans. So, Three Chins, this one is not for you.
10. READ – Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know reading isn’t writing, but it is essential. I’ve said it time and time again. You cannot be a writer if you’re not an avid reader. The act of reading both educates and inspires. You might come across a book and declare with your fist raised above your head, “I can write better than that!” Renew your love of the written word every day and your need to create will follow.
9. TURN OFF YOUR WIFI – If you write on a laptop or computer, disable your wifi the moment you sit down to write. Doing that will prevent you from falling down time suck rabbit holes like checking Facebook or reading the latest rant against Trump. All of that mindless chatter is a distraction, and you need to avoid distractions. I do recommend that you go old school and have print copies of a dictionary and thesaurus on hand. The online versions are great, but then again, you need wifi to access them.
8. LOOK AWAY FROM THE TV! – There is no bigger time suck than television. Whether it’s network programming, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, you need to limit the hours spent melting your brain. This is a tough one, especially now with so many quality shows turning up almost daily. Sorry, you’re not going to be able to watch all of them. Pick and choose, and make sure your TV time doesn’t gobble up your writing time. Baseball season is especially hard for me. If I had my way, I’d watch every Mets game. But my desire to be a writer far outweighs my need to let the Mets both elevate and crush my dreams.
7. MAKE YOURSELF ACCOUNTABLE – How do you do this? Tell everyone that you’re going to be a writer come hell or high water. Have a good friend who will put the screws to you if they see you veering away from your declared ambition. Now that you’ve declared your goal to everyone around you, the pressure is on. As Woody Harrelson says in Zombieland, “It’s time to nut up or shut up.”
6. SET WORD COUNT GOALS – Writers judge their progress by word count, not number of pages. So why not set a daily word count in your mind? A typical novel is 90,000 words. If you made it a point to write 1,000 words a day, your first draft will be done in three months.If 1,000 words seems too lofty, cut it in half. The key is to have a fixed word target. I know that life sometimes gets in the way and most people can’t write every day. So take your daily number and multiply it by seven for your weekly number. That way, if you miss a day or two, you know exactly how many extra words you need to pump out on the days you do write to hit your weekly quota.
5. LEAVE YOUR PHONE IN ANOTHER ROOM – I never, ever have my phone nearby when I sit down to write. It’s too easy to pick it up and get lost in messages and calls and apps. We’ve become little Pavlov’s dogs, instantly responding to every ding and chime our phones produce to let us know there’s something waiting to tear our attention away from our writing. Put that sucker in silent mode and leave it in a closet in the room down the hall. It’ll be there when you’re done. Plus, it’s good for the body, mind and soul to unplug for a while each day.
4. FIND YOUR BEST TIME TO WRITE – No two biorhythms are the same. My creative peak most likely won’t be close to yours. Experiment by writing at different times in the day to find your sweet spot. I remember hearing John Grisham talk about how he wrote at five in the morning before he had to go to court. I used to think I could never function that early. At the time, I was a seven PM writer. Well, cut to a decade later, and I’m now a six am writer. Your creative peaks change as you age, so if suddenly your noon schedule isn’t working, switch it up.
3. SET A DEADLINE – This ties in nicely with point 6 and 7. If you’re a first time writer, you’re not going to have an editor’s deadline hanging over your head. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. Set a deadline in stone. Write the date on a sticky note and paste it where you write. Tell everyone the date. Fixate on that date. If it gives you night sweats, good. Nothing inspires a writer more than a deadline. Tailor your word count goals so you can meet your deadline head-on.
2. HAVE MORE THAN ONE PROJECT TO WORK ON – Tackling a spy novel set in Bulgaria? Try your hand at romance novella or a series of articles on bee keeping. Create projects that match your experience or interests, or take on something new and challenging. You should always work on multiple projects. Why? Some days, that spy novel is going to hit a wall. You need your subconscious to work things out so you can go through or around that wall. To do that, you need to focus on something else, something completely different. That’s when you set to working on your side project. I guarantee, when you sit down the next day, you’ll be ready to jump back into your spy novel. Heck, that’s why I wrote this blog post! **Here’s a pro tip – If your first book lands a publishing deal, the next thing an editor will ask is, “So, what else do you have?” Don’t stand there with your mouth open. Tell your editor all about the other novel you’ve been working on (or if you’ve been really productive, send them the finished manuscript). Having more than one book in hand puts you head and shoulders above the competition.
1. DRIVE – Ernest Hemingway famously advised would be writers to Never think about the story when you’re not working. Remember what I said about your subconscious working things out for you? That soft and silent part of your brain is where everything comes from. You need to let it do its thing. The best way to do that is to drive. Get behind the wheel and let your conscious mind worry about getting from here to there. Most of my big aha moments have hit me in the car. I used to keep a voice recorder in the car so I could dictate the gold nuggets my subconscious allowed to float to the top. Now I use the app in my phone. If you don’t drive, walk. There’s something about being in motion that encourages ideas to generate. Just remember, while driving or walking, don’t think about your work in progress. Concentrate on not hitting that hybrid car in front of you or the scenery in the park you’re ambling about. Believe me, the rest will come to you.