Do-It-Yourself MFA in Memoir

April 4, 2011

This is the time of year when writing programs throughout the United States send out their letters of acceptance and rejection.  Because there are so many applicants for so few openings, many wonderful writers are squeezed out.  My program, for example, admits from four to eight students, depending on the year.  Scores of applicants apply.  And we can’t accept as many as we’d like.

I recently heard from a writer who’d received a rejection letter (not to my program) asking whether it was possible for her to teach herself what’s taught in an MFA program.  I recently read Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity, in which he talks about how and why he decided not to get a Ph.D., but to spend time doing its equivalent on his own.  Part of his decision was reached because of money.  But it was reached, too, because he believed that, for his purposes, a Ph.D. wasn’t necessary.

This isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t get an MFA should you choose to.  But I learned how to write memoir without an MFA and so I thought I’d share with you how I went about doing it and what a “Do-It-Yourself MFA in Memoir” might look like.  I want to say, too, that my education in memoir, my own “Do-It-Yourself MFA in Memoir” is ongoing.  I regard myself as a lifelong learner of memoir.  I suggest that you can jumpstart this process in, say, a summer, and then continue it throughout your writing life.

To give you some sense of what an MFA in Memoir looks like, I’ll describe our program.  During our MFA Program in Memoir students take a craft class (in which students study the craft of memoir) and a workshop (in which they receive critiques of their work) each semester.  In their second year, they take Writing in Conference in the first semester – a one-on-one tutorial and Thesis in the second semester – again a one-on-one tutorial – during which they complete their thesis.  In addition, they take two literature courses in the first year in a field that will contribute something to their writing.

Reading. To prepare myself for writing memoir I read as many memoirs as I could.  I was giving myself a “crash course” – I’d signed a contract to write a memoir in two years.  I’d advice any writers wanting to prepare themselves to write memoir to buy Sven Birkerts’ The Art of Time in Memoir and to read the twenty or so memoirs Birkerts mentions – as good an introduction to memoir as any I know.

As I read, I didn’t just read.  I used the memoirs I read to teach me about the craft of memoir.  I studied the “who, what, when, where, why” of memoir writing.  I studied how memoirists present characters – themselves and “difficult others.”  I studied what their subject matter was, and I noticed how restricted it often was.  I studied how they depicted setting – then when and where of memoir.  I studied how they described why their memoirs were written.

I looked, too, at how they handled time.  (Birkerts is especially important here.)  I studied how they depicted the internal life – dreams, desires, reveries.  I looked at how they worked with cause and effect, at how they explained the stuff of their lives.

I worked, as Virginia Woolf did herself – she never studied for an advanced degree, though she did attend a few classes – with a pen in hand.  Often, I copied passages out of the works I was reading to study them carefully.  I read – and still read – continuously.

In addition to the books Birkerts suggests, I would also read a clutch of very recent memoirs that have gotten good press in a good newspaper.  Knowing what’s being published right now is invaluable.

Writing Practice. As soon as I knew I’d be writing a memoir, I set up a realistic writing practice based upon what I’d learned about the creative process.  (More about this later.)  I was teaching full-time when I began my memoir, but I didn’t want to only write during the summer because I knew that steadiness in our writing practice is essential for success.

I wrote from one and a half to two hours a day, three to five days a week, depending on my schedule.  But on the days that I wasn’t officially writing, I made sure I did a little something – some revision, some organization, anything to keep my hand in the work.

I worked using the plan I’ve already posted, dividing my work into stages – Beginning, Working, Deepening, Completing.

For a “Do-It-Yourself” degree in memoir, I’d advise trying to complete a 100-page memoir in two years.  I think that’s realistic.  I’d try to have a draft completed in a year.  And I’d use the second year for refinement.  (That’s how many of my students work.)

Learning About the Creative Process.  For me, this was an essential part of my education.  I consistently read works about creativity such as Howard Gardner’s Creating Minds, Eric Maisel’s Fearless Creating, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (which I still use every time I’m finishing a book).  I steered away from books that promised that were too directive; that promised more than I knew they could deliver; that were written by people who hadn’t written their own memoirs.

I read, too, writer’s journals, diaries, and letters.  Those of Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, Henry Miller.  They were invaluable because I saw that even famous writers have their doubts.  I watched, too, how they worked and learned that, for example, Virginia Woolf rarely worked more than three hours a day at her fiction (though she worked, afternoons, on other projects).

This is easy enough for you to replicate.

Exposure to Published Writers. Every MFA Program I know invites published writers to read and interact with students.  These are always open to the public.  At the beginning of my work, I valued hearing writers read their work and answer questions.  Just seeing that they were human beings urged my work along.  I’d attend a reading or a conference seminar every two months or so.  These days, local independent bookstores, like the one in my community, often host writers.  With the Internet, it doesn’t take too much trouble to find events to attend.  I always made it a habit to introduce myself to the writers, to thank them for their work.  I made my remarks brief knowing myself that at the end of an event, a writer is tired.

Critiques of the Work. This is the most difficult part of the MFA to replicate.  But it’s not impossible.  In my own practice, I rarely ask anyone to comment upon my work in its beginning stages.  I don’t believe that’s useful.  When it’s well along, or when I’m impossibly stumped with a work that seems to be going nowhere, I then ask for help.

Where can a writer not in an official writing program get this kind of help?  In my community, I know of many writers offering classes in their homes that are far less expensive than university courses.  Sometimes they’ll offer daylong seminars, like the one I myself took with the writer Pam Satran – it was incredibly rewarding.  Sometimes they’ll offer weeks-long classes.

If there’s a university nearby, look into continuing education courses.  Most of these are cheaper than graduate programs.  They are often staffed by fantastic teachers.  (Hunter College offers continuing education courses in memoir besides the MFA in Memoir.)  Or there might be a center for writing near you.

Or, you can start your own writing circle.  If you read the acknowledgments of books, you’ll often find writers thanking a group of writing partners who helped them through the process.  Or, you can find a writing partner.

Whatever you do, set guidelines for critiquing.  (I list some in Writing as a Way of Healing.) And I wouldn’t give my work to anyone until I was well along in the process.  Digging into our own work without having anyone comment upon it is an invaluable learning experience.  It is, after all, how Virginia Woolf wrote her major works.  She’d learned early on, when she offered a draft of her first novel to someone to read that she was better off finishing the work before allowing anyone else to read it.

So there it is, my “Do-It-Yourself MFA in Memoir.”  Embarking on the study of this fascinating genre will reward you enormously.  This, I promise.



8 Responses to “Do-It-Yourself MFA in Memoir”

  1. segmation Says:

    I like your Do-It-Yourself MFA in Memoir. Have you ever tried painting art on your windows computer? When you get a chance, please go to for a free trial for your Windows computer and enjoy. segmation dot com.

  2. Vic Venom Says:

    (In lieu of offering my own products…)

    Literature is dying. Fewer people read now than they did 10 years ago (that itself is a sad statistic) I’ve watched local bookstores and now big chains (Waldenbooks, B. Dalton’s, and even a few Barnes & Noble) close up shop. With seemingly new technology replacing old tech at such a rapid pace, people simply don’t have the patience to sit still and READ (*shivers*)

    But I like Chris Guillebeau and his approach. Just because someone has great credentials and various letters stacked behind his name like he’s a knight-of-the-realm or something doesn’t mean that that is going to help him do the most important thing: SELL.

    Craig Ferguson, a TV personality who never set foot on a college campus, is the author of two New York Times bestsellers.

    Mick Foley & Chris Jericho, both high school graduates and professional wrestlers, with no previous knowledge of writing (creatively or otherwise) are multi-time NYT Bestsellers.

    But they have something that people like: Personality, it shines through in their writing. I myself would rather run headlong into an oncoming train that do *shivers, again* recommended reading, but if it’s a subject or someone I’m interested in especially a person I can identify with, I’ll buy the book and finish it in a day.

    That segway aside, Guillebeau has my approach: If you’re a writer, write. You want a Dr. before your name? Be a Dentist. Have you lived an interesting life? TELL ME ABOUT IT! Put pen to paper and never give up.

  3. Danielle Says:

    I’ll be applying to grad schools in another year or so (Hunter being a top choice), but I do always ask myself “What can a course offer me that I can’t learn on my own?” Part of wanting to go to school to continue my degree is, as you said, not knowing where to get the education on your own. But I also look at it as an oppertunity to meet other writers who can offer their guidance. I agree about being a life long student of memoir, of all writing. You’re never too old to learn something new. Honestly, if one day I stop and say to myself “I’ve learned it all,” I’ll be worried because it will mean I’ll have no growth left in me. But I believe we can always grow, esepcially our writing.

  4. junebug65 Says:

    Thanks for your post! I decided to write a humorous memoir several years ago, then began the process of learning how to write. I read (and pretty much bought) every book on writing I could get my hands on. I spent every spare moment behind my computer, churning out pages. I’ve had to ditch most of them, but there were enough jewels buried in the prose to build upon. Now I’ve had four pieces from the memoir published, am braving the waters of social media and have begun my book proposal. It was great to read your thoughts on the process. I relate to pretty much everything you said.

  5. Gi'Ana Walker Says:

    Seeing as how my graduate degree will not be in memoir this post is extremely helpful. I do plan to continue writing and this guideline will definitely allow me to further my education in this genre.

  6. Lisa Roth-Gulvin Says:

    I too am interetsed in the MFA program at Hunter. However, I am prepared to continure writing on my own as well. Thanks for the guidance.

  7. Great post! I actually found your blog while searching for Guillebeau’s DIY PhD, since I was trying to remember what he put on his reading list. I definitely think reading in the genre you write is important, whether you’ve got an MFA or are teaching yourself, but your advice on attending readings is also a great idea. Thanks!

  8. Emma J. Wisdom Says:

    I’ve written 40,000+words of my memoir in the form of personal essays detailing a particular experience in my life.

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