Why I Never Got an MFA

Growing up, I loved writing and books. Storytelling in any form was one of my great passions. So when I got to college I was super excited to take creative writing classes.

But my first creative writing class was far more disappointing than I expected.

Our professor gave us different essays to read by prize-winning authors and then spelled out a bunch of rules that we should all follow if we wanted to be good writers. Realism was important, he said. For example, if we included a can of soda in our story we should make sure the can was 12 oz. just like a real can of soda would be.

My heart sank. I had about a bajillion words inside me ready to spill out, fragments and images and flashes of fire and lightning that I yearned to piece together into the story I knew was there. This guy was telling me to focus on how many ounces a can of soda contained.

The yearning inside of me to write and my professor’s set of rules felt worlds away from each other. Did this mean I was going to be a bad writer?

I didn’t do well in that class.

The assignments I turned in felt flat and stale. I didn’t care about them. I was writing to compete with my classmates and get a grade, hopefully a decent one.

The next class I took was even worse.

This was a critique class. We each wrote a short story and then sat in a circle of 25 people who critiqued it. I knew my story wasn’t awesome to begin with—after all, I had hated writing it.

Sitting through the critique was worse than pushing out all those unwanted words on the page.

My classmates took it apart line by line. I felt like I was watching a machine being disassembled.

No one asked me the things I wanted to ask my classmates but was too shy to bring up. Every time we critiqued someone else’s piece I wondered, “Is this the story you really wanted to write?” “Does writing feel as hard and scary to you as it does to me?” “Do you think other writers feel this way?” “If that’s not the story you really wanted to write, when are you going to write the one you do?”

To me, those questions felt so much more important instead of pointing out a metaphor that could have been fresher.

After that last class, I was done. Writing had lost its joy to me. I already felt shy and insecure enough about my writing without having it picked apart and picked to death by more people. My own inner critic was doing a fine job of that, thank you very much.

So I stopped writing. And I didn’t start again for seven long years.

It took me seven years to join a writing group. Seven years to try writing anything creative down on paper. Seven years to tell people I wanted to write. Because of my couple of bad experiences I totally shut down. I didn’t pursue writing in college beyond those two classes, and I didn’t even consider going for an MFA. I didn’t pursue the one thing in my life that I was truly passionate about, and that fulfilled me on so many different levels.

Instead, I went into resistance. And I let my writing life be ruled by fear.

I don’t regret the path I took, because I do believe that it was the one I was supposed to take in this life. However, I can look back and see how many opportunities I turned down and how many people I didn’t meet who could have been great writing friends.

The funny thing is that when I was turning stuff down and missing out, I thought I was making a good decision. I thought I was protecting myself.

But the reality is that I was living from a place of resistance and fear. I was just plain scared and so I didn’t take the risks that could have brought so much joy. Many writers do this and our resistance can take so many forms. It might look like:

Saying no to going to a writers’ conference because you won’t know anyone else there

Saying no to submitting your work to agents because you think it’s not good enough

Saying no to starting your novel because you don’t have it all worked out just yet

Saying no to sitting down and writing once a week because you’ve convinced yourself you don’t have the time

There are tons of different avenues our resistance can take, but you see the main theme. When resistance is in the house with us, we say no to our writing. We say no to life.

The only solution is to do the opposite. We have to say yes. Even if we’re scared (which we still will be, almost guaranteed). Even if our mind totally freaks out and goes into panic mode. Panic doesn’t last forever. In fact, it can’t even sustain its own energy much beyond an hour or so. But saying no can close doors permanently.

Start by saying yes. Say yes to something that makes you nervous. Say yes to sitting down once a week and writing for 30 minutes. Say yes to going to a writers’ conference, even if you won’t know anyone else there.

The fear will dissolve later, on its own. That’s not yours to worry about. The only thing you need to concentrate on is saying yes, and let life take its course and do the rest.

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  • Reply seumas gallacher 29 December, 2014 at 9:52 am

    This is arguably the finest ’all-writers-must-read’ blog piece I’ve read this year … with your permission, I’m gonna cut and paste it (coz I can’t seem to automatically reblog it on to WordPress) with attribution to you and bang it out on my SOSYAL NETWURK channels … THIS is what it’s all about! the passion to write.! Thanks for sharing this, m’Lady. Lauren 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 29 December, 2014 at 10:45 am

      Of course, please share wherever you like Seumas! And thanks so much for your encouraging words. REALLY appreciate it!

  • Reply Marie Ann Bailey 29 December, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    I’m with Seumas … this is a must-read post for writers! I’ve had similar experiences with creative writing classes. Not all of them were bad, and generally my fellow students were more supportive than not. I have fond memories of some of the more experienced writers in my class going to great lengths to NOT hurt my feelings with their criticism, but at best I still often wound up feeling confused. If my self-doubt was ever alleviated by a creative writing class, it was brief 😉 But then that needed to come from within. Only I can give myself permission to believe in myself as writer. Maybe that’s the most important thing I learned from those classes: I need to believe in me first.
    I’m so glad you finally found a supportive writing group. Where I live, social groups tend to be very parochial, much like classrooms can be, and so I continue to glean support from my virtual writing groups, and they are pretty awesome 🙂

  • Reply …passion in yer writing… my friend, Authoress, Lauren Sapala nails it… | Seumas Gallacher 29 December, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    […] Why I Never Got An MFA by Lauren Sapala […]

  • Reply Mari Biella 30 December, 2014 at 7:34 am

    Well said, Lauren. There’s certainly a place for listening to other people’s ideas, and for critique, but I get very depressed when I see writing being reduced to a list of rules. Show, don’t tell. Avoid the passive form. And so on … these rules have certainly worked for someone somewhere, and they’re worth trying, but to take them as gospel is short-sighted to say the least. The “write-by-numbers” approach makes an awful lot of presuppositions – that you’re primarily interested in writing commercial fiction, for example, and that you’re not particularly interested in experimentation. Above all, it can actually prevent you finding your own voice.

    I’m not saying that anyone’s ideas about creative writing can be dismissed – far from it – but ultimately I think that all writers have to write in accordance with their own vision. Rules might help you to do that, but then again they might not.

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 1 January, 2015 at 10:21 am

    I need this advice very badly. I have ‘not had time’ to write for several months now (not counting some short stories for a course). My new novel and my non-fiction book have stalled. I am catching up with the hundreds of emails now… in order to make time to write.. wrong – I must do it the other way round. Thank you.

  • Reply Kim Smith 3 January, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    Lauren, I identify with so much of this. I’m still in a place of resistance, but am NOT giving up on myself. I constantly browse the web for writing conferences and retreats, but tell myself I don’t belong there. I read all sorts of advice about writing, but have not yet submitted anything for publication because I’m afraid my first rejection will knock me down again. It’s really encouraging to know that you went through a long period of resistance before finally finding your way to a writing life. Thanks for sharing that. There’s hope for me yet!

  • Reply Michelle Mueller 22 January, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    Wow! Such an honest article! Thank you for sharing, Lauren.

    I have balked at MFA programs because of monetary issues, but also because I believe writers don’t need degrees to be writers. We write because it’s who we are, not because the paper says we should. And it certainly can’t determine the quality of a piece. I was really sad to read you had such negative experiences with creative writing classes. It sounds like the stereotypical elitist situation that gives the “literary” writing world such a bad rap.

    I took a creative writing class my final semester of college and it was the first time I’d ever shared my work publicly. I received a lot of encouragement for the short story I wrote (it was critiqued by the class) and the professor met with individual students privately to discuss areas for improvement and so at the end of the course. He actually suggested I go for the MFA and told me he’d write a letter of recommendation, but I declined. That course made me realize I had a future in writing though, and I think it’s because of my professor’s acknowledgment of my ability that I’ve come this far.

    BUT I’m glad you persevered and worked through your writing fears. Just say YES is excellent advice. I need to keep that in mind myself. 🙂

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