The Best Ways to Learn As a Writer
I’m going to talk about writing in just a minute.
But first, I want to talk about my husband.
I don’t say nearly as much about Curtis as I should considering that he is the unsung hero of Inkling Creative Strategies. It’s because of his hard work and provision for our home that I was able to take the risk of starting my own company.
While I’m on Zoom calls, editing client manuscripts, writing this blog, and helping you guys reach your full creative potential so you can impact and inspire readers, he’s making the coffee, keeping the internet on, and learning about the world I work in.
I say this because he comes from a drastically different work background from me. I deal in words, storylines, and the magic that happens when people invent characters and worlds. As a craftsman and machinist, he’s all about mathematics and scientific accuracy.
Definitely not my scene, guys.
But the thing I think is super cool about Curtis though (and there are obviously a lot of things) is that he teaches himself everything.
While he got his start in a machining trade program at the county career center, he’s continued learning and developing his interests his whole life. He not only educates himself on how to further his profession in his spare time but has taught himself other skills as well.
He is a self-taught guitarist and dobro player. He knows everything there is to know about Dodge trucks. He has knowledge equivalent to a master’s degree in theology.
I’m really in awe of his brain. Not just because is he probably the smartest person I know, but because the way he learns is so different from how I learn.
Where he is able to find the right books, resources, and tools to learn a new skill and nail it with practice and effort, I can’t move forward in my own work without teachers.
Why I Needed an M.F.A.
I majored in creative writing and professional writing in college. The small liberal arts school I went to had an amazing English department, and I wanted to take full advantage of the experience I had in front of me.
I built solid mentorships with a few like-minded faculty members, wrote a novel, and learned for the first time how to share and revise my work.
By the time I graduated, I’d come a long way. But I hadn’t gone nearly enough, and that’s why I decided to go for a Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing.
M.F.A. programs aren’t for the faint of heart. You have to be willing to be vulnerable in showing your work to others and receive real, honest feedback that exposes its strengths and flaws (heavy emphasis on the flaws).
On the flip side, you have to put in the work of studying and critiquing your colleagues’ work, hopefully in the spirit of truly wanting to help them be better and not just to flaunt your knowledge (sadly, there was a lot of that).
Then you get to write your thesis, which basically means you literally write a book. You work with a faculty mentor to make it happen, but the majority of the work is you, alone with a computer, doing your thing.
Then you get up in front of a panel of faculty members who grill you about your artistic choices.
Personally, I thought it was fun despite the obvious stress, but then some may say I have a rather odd idea of what “fun” is.
I got the degree. I’m glad I did. It was a bedrock experience in my development as an artist in particular and a human being in general.
But here’s the deal.
A graduate education in creative writing—or any classroom writing experience, for that matter–doesn’t make you a writer.
To alter the old cliché, being in school doesn’t make you a writer any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.
In fact, there are thousands of extremely talented writers who would quickly discover upon starting an M.F.A. program that it’s not for them . . . but it wouldn’t diminish their talent one bit.
It just means that the way they write doesn’t fit with the way graduate students are expected to learn.
I have a good friend I met during my undergraduate creative writing program. She told me that even though she was easily good enough, she could never go to an M.F.A. program. Her reason was simple: she liked studying writing on her own.
She read dozens of books about writing, engaged in online writing communities, and religiously did National Novel Writing Month every year. Her passion for writing was infectious.
I don’t think that enthusiasm would have survived an M.F.A. workshop. I think the environment would have choked it out. Yet, I thrived in the same environment. Why?
Because the way I learn best is with someone to teach and guide me. I need an Obi-Wan Kenobi who’s been in it, knows the best way to win, and can help me do what I need to do to get there.
My friend from college, not to mention Curtis, doesn’t need that. Both of them just need to be alone in the room with the right tools and their creativity.
Why “Doing My Own Thing” Didn’t Cut It
I tried to do it on my own for awhile. I really did. For about ten years after I graduated, I floundered around revising old work, writing a deeply flawed young adult novel, making a disastrous foray into contemporary Christian fiction, and finally just getting frustrated because I had no idea what I was doing anymore or what being a writer even looked like for me.
Around the time COVID happened, I was working a copywriting gig that I really enjoyed and was thinking, “What do I even need all that fiction stuff for? I’m using my writing talents right now for something important!”
I’m not saying it wasn’t important. The content I created made sales and that impacted both the clients and their customers. I learned a ton of stuff that has proved invaluable for running Inkling.
But the core of who I am is not a content developer, and for awhile, I lost sight of that.
What saved me—what brought me back to the kind of writer I am—was finding a community online.
I joined The Habit Membership, a group run by author and teacher Jonathan Rogers, of writers working together in creative fellowship.
The thing that makes this group fundamentally different from my M.F.A. program is that there are no egos, no implicit competition, no flaunting of knowledge. Everyone simply wants each other’s work to be as good as it can possibly be.
We take classes together, critique each other’s writing, and have enriching collaborative conversations and writing time on Zoom. It’s unveiled a whole new side of my talent that I didn’t know was there.
The point is this: when I reentered a world I was more comfortable with, with classes and education and rapport with fellow students, I began creating work I really loved for the first time since my M.F.A.
I’m not a D.I.Y. writer. I need coaches and trainers. Perhaps that’s why I’m so passionate about providing that service for other authors—I’ve had great role models and I know how powerful the right person can be.
How Do You Like to Learn About Writing?
My biggest advice to writers is to figure out how you learn best, and then do that.
Some writers like to be taught. Some like to just do it. Both approaches are equally valid.
If you need instruction, seek out the people you need to help you get better. This might be joining a local writing group either in person or online. One of the great things about the pandemic (if anything about it was actually “great”) is that meeting online has become a lot more common.
Find a community that works for you. Take a writing class online or at a local college. Find a teacher or mentor or a group that wants to see you succeed, not just your writing.
If you are a self-taught creator, read a ton. This goes for people who like to be taught as well, but there’s nothing like soaking up everything that books by the experts have to say.
Listen to podcasts. Watch TED Talks. There are experts out there at your fingertips waiting for you to discover.
Or, you could hire a writing coach.
And that’s where I come in.
Inkling Creative Strategies doesn’t just offer editing and feedback for people with completed projects. I am also here to help writers who are just getting started.
Sign up for a la carte coaching sessions, a six-week mentorship, or work with me one on one to develop a short story or essay.
I also offer a complimentary Zoom meetup so you can find out if I’m the right fit for you.
Click here to learn more about Virtual Meetups, my free consultation service, and get scheduled on my calendar!