Aug 29

So You Want a BFA. . .

Young people considering writing careers sometimes ask about the BFA>MFA track and I tell them, "No! Anything but that!" And mean it. Biology! Classics! Business! Please, please use your undergraduate years to learn something besides creative writing! I know a New Yorker short-story writer who graduated from the Colorado School of Mines. The story that made him famous is about cavemen.

In my experience the best possible background if teenagers can't wait to see themselves in print before they're really ready is journalism. Journalism school teaches how to observe and write about something besides yourself. You learn to write hard news, features and profiles, all requiring fantastically different strategies and skills. You practice doing research, interpreting statistics and trends, doing interviews. I hope J-school still teaches ethics and accountability. It pushes you out on the street and tells you not to come back until you get and write the story.

That happens to be my own background. There wasn't a BFA in creative writing so I wanted to be an English major. My parents wanted me to learn a trade so I went to J-school and owe it everything. I was taught to write clearly and be responsible for what I wrote. Also, ultimately my work serves others, whether it's information or entertainment. All those apply to creative writing. I lived on what I learned in J-school while getting my MFA. BFA doesn't mean you learned anything about writing. Journalism means that you did. And you know the famous names who were journalists before they were novelists: Dreiser, Hemingway, and so on.

BFA>MFA>(and, oh no!) Ph.D in Creative Writing . . .and you'll still have to hand over your writing sample to answer, "Can you write?"
May 05

Better Than Money

"I have to let you know," said the young poet who sought me out at the party, "that your new book inspired me to write my first nonfiction. I've had some stuff to deal with, and I thought first that I might write it as fiction. But it came out as nonfiction. It's my first essay. I just wanted to thank you."

"That's really great," I said.

"And whenever I got sort of stuck while I was writing it, I would look at the essays in your book and see what you had done. I used them as a sort of template."

"I'm glad," I said.

"I never thought I'd write any nonfiction. It was such a surprise!"

"Poets tend to write good nonfiction," I said. "Could you tell," I added, "in those earlier essays, whose template I was using? James Baldwin's," I said. "You can see me imitating his sentence structure. Until I got my own."

"I love James Baldwin. I've read a lot of his fiction. I love Sonny's Blues, and use it in every class I teach. But I didn't know he wrote essays."

"He wrote great, great essays. His fiction really doesn't compare at all. I hope you can get the collected-essays book called The Price of the Ticket. If I have any regrets," I said to the poet, "it's that during his lifetime I must have had the chance to hear James Baldwin read from his work, maybe on a campus, and I must have passed it up. I'd never even heard of him. I was already in my 30s when I first read his work. But his essays were my inspiration."

"Yours were mine!"

And later I thought: That's more proof that only good has come of my having the nerve to self-publish. I don't mean money; I can go work at Wal-Mart and make money. I mean true genuine good.
Jan 22

Ways to Be Part of the Future

Do you write because you want to live forever? You can start on that right now.

1. Write poems? Post a poem or two on the Net at www.poemhunter.com. Sure, there are lots of poems on there. Sure, many are junk. But not all of them are. And yours certainly are better than most.

2. Have you published a book? Is it still in print? Every library system has an "acquisitions" librarian. Find the acquisitions page on the library's website and suggest the library acquire your book. You can suggest books for any library system you belong to. Ask your friends in other counties and states to suggest your book to their local and university libraries.

3. Have you written a book? Do you own the electronic rights to it? Can you turn the computer file into a pdf file? If so, you may upload and publish it as an eBook, for free, at www.lulu.com. People can then visit lulu.com, and find and download your eBook. You can also download others' books for free. eBooks are the way of the future. Get on the wagon now.

4. Help a young writer, a child or a teen. Just encourage them, no matter what they are writing, to keep on writing things. You know from your own experience that writers of any age can get a lot of mileage out of a few kind words.