While I am grateful for my time in creative writing programs and personally found them useful, I won’t be that person who tells you you absolutely need a creative writing program to be or improve as a writer.
This isn’t an anti-program blog wherein I give the big middle digit to The Man, mind you … not to say it would be a bad thing if it was. After all, several important criticisms of creative writing programs have been raised by the likes of Camille Rankine (here), Junot Diaz (here), and many more.
No, this blog’s purpose is to give guidance to those who may want to improve as writers but may simply be considering other options besides creative writing programs.
A couple clients of mine in the past few years decided they wanted to pursue graduate creative writing degrees. One had focused on science in her undergraduate pursuits but always had a passion for the humanities, then reached the point where she wanted time to write, to grow as a writer, to connect with other writers.
The good news is, none of this is impossible to do outside of a creative writing program — which can be a hefty investment careerwise and financially, especially in today’s economic climate … and especially when you consider that a creative writing program doesn’t actually assure that you’ll receive anything more than the time to write.
Hopefully you’ll make long-lasting connections there with other writers, both faculty and peers. Hopefully you’ll grow and become a better writer. Hopefully you’ll obtain the degree, which is actually essential if you’re interested in teaching writing in American universities. But no creative writing program, undergraduate or graduate, actually guarantees any of these things.
And remember, prior to 1936, creative writing programs didn’t even exist. We certainly had plenty of talented writers before then, didn’t we? So there must be plenty of ways to grow and improve as writers that have nothing to do with creative writing programs.
If you decide, for whatever reason, that a program isn’t for you, here are some things you can do to continue your growth as a writer:
1) Write. The more you practice anything, the better at you you become. So sayeth Malcolm Gladwell and a bunch of other smart folk. Try to establish a regular routine, even if it’s only 10 minutes a week.
2) Revise yourself. It’s not enough to just write a bunch. It’s not enough to be one of those people who think your crap gold on a first draft — not if you’re trying to improve as a writer, anyway. If you’re just trying to write, then all you need to do is just write. But revision is where the improvement comes in.
3) Revise others. Read other people’s work and edit it. This goes for works in progress (easy to come by if you’re in any writing-related profession, like an editorial position at a magazine) as well as “finished” work. Find your favorite poetry, nonfiction, or fiction and try editing it (keeping those edits to yourself, obviously). Try to enter that other person’s vision, think of places where you might change things, then ask yourself why. I do this regularly as I’m reading other people’s poetry in particular. For example, silly as it may sound, I regularly delete what I feel is an extra “the” from one of my favorite poems when I read it because the rhythm feels better to me that way. This practice should help you take a step back from your own work and apply the same sort of perspective.
4) Read. Not just creative writing. Read the news. Read about science. Read about technology. Read about math and music and manuals. Read mythology. Read anything and everything because you never know where your next great idea will come from.
5) Use those Intarwebs. There are so many writing prompts, so much editing advice, so much content and information out there on this subject that the only obstacle to improvement is you.
6) Network. This is the business world’s term for attending a class, webinar, conference, salon, retreat, reading series, etc., and actually connecting with other writers. You don’t need to be in a 2-5-year program to do any of these things … or get the same benefits from them. For those who want to engage with others or feel that developing connections with writing peers is a missing yet essential piece to improving as an artist, this is the only way you’re going to be able to meet these peeps outside of a program. If you happen to be one of the many wallflower writers out there, you’re going to have to overcome your introversion to some extent in order to connect with others, but it’ll be well worth it. Talk to people online and offline. Comment on others’ blogs. Start your own blog. Try to get involved with a literary magazine or events at your local library and/or bookstore. If you’re really bold, you could even try reaching out to the writers you admire and would like to develop relationships with.
These tips are also helpful for those who’ve wrapped up their traditional programs and still plan to pursue their creative writing ventures and/or want feedback they may not be receiving from their former colleagues. Just because you graduated and left academia doesn’t mean your progress as a creative writer has to stop. On the contrary, I’ve found the “real world” to have had a profoundly positive impact on my writing, coming back to that idea of not knowing where your next inspiration might spring from.
Feel free to note any other tips I may have left out or that have been particularly helpful to you in the comments section below.