A college student who's an aspiring fiction writer got in touch recently, hoping to interview me for a project she was doing. Along with the questions she asked about what it's like to be a novelist, she wanted to know whether I believed creative writing could be taught.
What she was really asking, it turned out, was, Should I study creative writing? Will it help make me good enough to have a writing career?
Back in 2002, not long after I'd invested two years in my first effort at writing a novel, I began to wonder the same thing. I'd written an entire story beginning-middle-end (an accomplishment itself; you aspiring writers, don't let anyone tell you differently), revised it, revised it, revised it, and was in the midst of my second descent into the fiery pits of hell--er, agent queries. What I got back, in those days of SASE replies, were lots of form letter rejections in my mailbox. Dozens of them. But amidst those were a few encouraging letters--and, one day, a phone call from a very successful agent, a dream agent. When she said her name, I thought I might wet myself. (Yes, that's how it is at that stage, oh my...)
She'd read the novel. She'd liked a lot of what she read. The writing was solid, the voice was fresh. But it was clear to her that I still had some things to learn about how to tell a story in writing. Things like...building a plot. Small thing, but kind of important.
"What do you recommend?" I asked, the phone receiver clutched in my hand like a lifeline.
"Oh, there are some great books that address plot. You might also consider a writing group or workshop. Whatever makes sense for you. And then, if you revise it, I'd like to see it again."
She didn't say, "Go get an MFA in creative writing."
Because the fact is, most authors don't have MFAs. Don't need them, don't want them, can't afford the time and/or the money it takes to get those three letters that no one even gets to put after their name. You finish the degree program and you are not Dr. Great Writer, MFA. Not even Ms. Great Writer, MFA. Really, not even Ms. Great Writer, though of course there are some writing programs that seem to project exactly that expectation (but that's a subject for another post...).
But in 2002, I had a twelve-year-old and a nine-year-old, both of whom I hoped to be able to send to college right after they finished high school (not when they were in their 30s, as had been my personal experience--and of course my parents didn't pay). I really, really wanted to be a novelist, a professional, full-time writer who earned a decent living. When people asked me, "What do you do?" I would be able to say, "I'm a writer," and be identifying not only my occupation, but my career.
So, in order to hedge my bets in as many ways as I could figure out how to do, I applied to grad school hoping to learn plot and whatever else came along. I didn't have a writing credit to my name. I'd never taken a writing class. All I had to recommend me to the faculty was a well-rejected manuscript and a burning desire to learn to be a better writer. If I got in, then completed the program, I'd come away with at the very least some extra credentials that would, I hoped, allow me to get a teaching job while I kept working at my ultimate goal.
Three years later, I'd written another novel (twice), figured out plot, completed the MFA degree, taught a couple semesters of undergraduate creative writing, and had gained representation by my first choice of agents. Nine months after that, I'd written one more novel--Souvenir, the one that would launch my career. Today, nine years after that agent's phone call, I'm in my fifth year of writing full-time, at work on my fourth novel, which is under contract, and my sons are both in college.
"So you see," I told the student, "every writer with even a little innate talent can, with instruction of whatever flavor, become a better writer. But you won't know for sure whether instruction will make you a better writer, a good enough writer," I said, "until you try. If a writer is what you really want to be, do it in whatever way makes sense for you, but do it."
A coda: It's not only about writing. In 2005, the same year that I was finishing grad school, Steve Jobs spoke at the Stanford University commencement. He'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year earlier; as you know by now, he died yesterday. In that speech, he told the graduates many useful things, but among them was this message: "The only way to do great work is to love what you do... Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."
Therese Fowler is the author of three novels, the most recent of which is Exposure, recommended by the New York Times, USA Today, and Family Circle Magazine. She's doing her best to adjust to her new empty-nest status by regularly posting photos of any of her four cats on Facebook.