Don't Go to College
A personal story about why I think an MFA is overrated for fiction writers. Some resources and links to utilize instead of college loans.
Want to be a fiction* author, huh?
Let me tell you a story about why I think you shouldn’t go to college** and what I recommend instead.
This is my story.
Growing up, I wanted to be a writer. My dad had taught me to read the Sunday funnies before I could scrawl my name in blue crayon. I tore through books, reading voraciously at the expense of many normal kid activities. At the approximate age of nine, I wrote and illustrated a children's book called "Macademy the Adventure Cat" for an assignment at school. I fell totally, utterly in love with books. I wanted to imitate this wonder, this craft of creation. I wanted to be an author.
I was one of the lucky ones who was truly certain I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I started writing a book called "Saurian Central," a sci-fi adventure about dinosaurs discovered on Ganymede. I wrote pages of outlines, about 30k words, and drew diagrams of tens of spaceships and sketches of characters, all before I turned 17.
But then I joined the military as a trumpet player for the 3rd Infantry Division Band (for the college money). Then 9/11 happened, and I found myself in Iraq.
On 4/20/2003, a fire tore through the walls of the Iraqi Airways catering building we were staying in. The evacuation alarm sounded at 1am, and we were not allowed to take anything with us other than what we could grab immediately. I took my M-16 and my camera -- I'd get in trouble if I didn't have full accountability of the former, and I'd be damned if I didn't take pictures of this event with the latter. I figured they would quickly extinguish the fire and we'd be back in business in no time.
The fire burned for six days.
This was the age before the internet had matured and storage solutions had sublimated into “the cloud.” My story, its outline, sketches, full spaceship artwork all burned in the fire. A pile of ash and a piece of melted, bent plastic where there had once been a thick binder and a laptop.
I was only 19. My dream had been murdered by a malfunctioning mosquito zapper and a flickering power grid. The trauma was too great, and I had no experiences from which to draw advice or direction.
So I quit.
I did my time in the military and rushed through a business degree afterward just to get the required piece of paper, feeling like I was now behind the curve when compared to all my peers. I threw myself into work, starting at my uncle’s auto shop then FedEx. I signed on as a tech trainer, gained fourteen technical certifications, helped write Microsoft certification exams, taught for Boeing, then worked at a tiny AI research company. I thought I had arrived when I landed a job at Riot Games.
I was never satisfied; I was always hunting for something new.
During this time, a story came to me between the AI company and Riot, when I had quit my job to visit my friend in Australia for a few months. I blasted out an outline during the summer in December 2012. When I landed the job at Riot, what I considered my dream job, my authorial embers, just barely warming, turned cold and dim.
I tried to write this new story, Saltairaine, an epic fantasy. Without any direction or knowledge on how to properly craft a story, I dribbled out about 50,000 words of unparalleled, unapologetic crap over the next seven years.
But despite securing dream jobs, traveling the country, teaching amidst the bits of 787s at the Boeing factory, landing a job at Riot Games… I was never happy.
I was lost, adrift, unsatisfied, because I was not being faithful to my first true love.
It took a totally random near-death experience sixteen years after the events in Iraq to refocus and rediscover the thing that made my heart race. And I realized I had no idea how to actually do the art of writing.
I spent three months on temporary leave from work, high on meds and laid out on a couch. I bought thirteen books on the craft of writing—what better way to learn than through the meta-education of reading books written about writing books?
It wasn’t long before I realized most of these books had a few nuggets of bright gold but most of it was mere filler. Most of what they had to say was intuitive to someone who’s been devouring books early like a fasting patient invited to a surprise Thanksgiving dinner. Hungry, still dissatisfied, I hopped on YouTube to see what content this medium would present.
(Links to everything mentioned will be at the end of this post).
There, I found the first glimmers of genius, the first signposts that marked the way. I happened across Brandon Sanderson’s recording of a class called 318R that he taught at BYU. There were three different recordings of this class, each roughly 4 years apart. I watched one of them straight through – I think the 2016 one – and remarked a few names that Brandon dropped a few times.
Writing Excuses Podcast.
David Wolverton aka David Farland.
There were more, but I latched onto these. I found the Writing Excuses podcast and listened from Episode 1 (recommend starting at season 10). I remembered the name “David Farland” from something I’d read… The Runelords, I recalled. I loved that series. It turned out that Brandon had taken 318R initially from Dave, so I sought out the mentor, the Obi Wan of this authorial Jedi.
There I found an incredibly soft-spoken, kind-hearted wizard of a man, who bestowed his knowledge and deep insights onto those willing to learn like a King freely offering endowments of wit (you gotta read Runelords to know). I signed up for his own online version of 318R, then his writing group Apex Writers, then his in-person Advanced Science Fiction & Fantasy workshop, then his Epic Novel course… and after a whirlwind of about two years in his tutelage, he passed away unexpectedly, leaving a hole in my writerly soul. This was my “loss of the mentor” moment of the Hero’s Journey.
I said my goodbyes to Dave in another post, so I won’t elaborate here. But I will say that one of his many tidbits of advice was to pursue a degree other than an MFA; go to school for something you deeply love or are fascinated by. In this, your writing will gain authenticity, and you will capture the reader’s imagination—not just their mind. Go for criminal justice, astronomy, veterinary. And learn from those writers around you.
Your stories should be filled with your passion, your experiences, and your wonder. The craft of English can be absorbed through reading. The craft of story, however, is one that is not innate, as it is hidden from the one experiencing it.
This artful architecture is what one should study, instead of going to college for the hammers and nails. Added to a lifetime of experiences, your writing has a much better opportunity to be authentic, rich, and inviting.
I will post links to extremely efficiently informative sources that I believe will accelerate the budding fiction writer in their journey to understanding the hidden craft of it. Please feel free to reach out to me if you have questions, or if there’s more you’d like to see here. I plan on posting these links separately in a reference page for all to access.
This is all my opinion, of course! :D Go to college if that's what you want!
(Please note, the following links may be affiliate links, and I may benefit from your click and/or purchase. But they are posted with the utmost belief that they are some of the best sources out there).
LINKS TO STUDY THE ARTFUL ARCHITECTURE OF FICTION WRITING:
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel [Structure]
Dave Farland’s Million Dollar Outlines [Outlining]
Joshua Essoe’s Guides [Tips on writing action scenes and sex scenes, more to come]
Donald Maas’ Emotional Craft of Fiction: The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface [Fundamentals - the author who makes the reader cry the most wins]
Wulf Moon's Super Secrets Forum on Writers of the Future [Fundamentals, Classes]
K.M. Weiland's Helping Writers Become Authors website [Resources, Articles]
* Fiction writing seems to be far less supported by collegiate programs than literary or non-fiction writing.
** Far from advocating against college in general, I firmly believe one should pursue further education in something one is interested in. This will assist greatly in fiction writing by providing an authoritative voice in the subject (assuming it’s something you want to write about or work into your story as an auxiliary or supporting role). I still want to go to school for geology and do a stint with the Forest Service. Think that won’t help my fiction writing where I’m writing about nanomagic in the Pacific Northwest or about the Galactic Forest Service and the wondrously lush planets of the Arboria sector?