10 Lessons I Learned in My MFA Writing Program

Knowing how to write was only the first step

I graduated from Northwestern University’s Writing for the Screen + Stage MFA program in June 2018. Applying was my first real step toward taking myself seriously as a professional writer.

Still, I always have to take a moment when I’m asked: “What did you get your degree in?”

Usually, I just say “screenwriting and playwriting” with a nod and a slightly pitiful smile. It’s an uneasy balance of pride and knowingness. An acknowledgment that why, yes, I am the student-loan-debt-ridden bonehead who got another degree in an impractical field with no traditional career path… but I went to a really good (and expensive) school to do it!

Don’t misunderstand me. I am very proud of the work I did at Northwestern. I left with a decent-to-good portfolio. I learned from instructors who were as generous as they were prolific. I made friends I hope to always keep, even if distance, existential chaos, and myriad mood disorders make it difficult to stay in touch.

I can’t say whether or not you should go into an MFA program. That’s not what this article is about. What I know is that without my experience in one, I might not have learned some hard truths about writing, being a writer, and being an artist.

1. Structure, not scripture

When I got to grad school, I needed structure. In my life and my writing. I had read about three-act structure before grad school but had no idea how to apply it.

Soon, I learned that not only was there a three-act structure, but there was the Hero’s Journey. Four-act structure. Five-plot-point breakdowns. The Save the Cat diagram. I learned just as many plotting strategies from my fellow writers as I did my instructors.

Some writers feel stifled by structure, but it’s not meant to be dogma. It’s a tool. It’s like welding. You’re creative and you have all the parts, but sometimes you need help putting them together. Learning about plot structure gave me the tools and the language to write through the toughest parts of a story.

2. You need to find collaborators

Every writer should have a core group of trusted readers to look at our work before it goes out to a wider audience. This group doesn’t have to be other writers. However, they must understand how vulnerable that early process is. These initial stages of workshopping your stories should be more about helping you say what you’re intending to say and less about critiquing the piece as if it’s finished.

I consider the people who read my early drafts to be my collaborators. Whether I take their notes or not, they’re helping get my writing to the place I want it to be. The more consistent that group, the more familiar they can get with your work, and the more they can help.

I got lucky. Being an MFA student, I got to meet other writers whom I want to work with for years to come. Finding that group of collaborators might be a challenge, but it’s worth it.

On that note…

3. You need to be a good collaborator

If you want to build a group of trusted readers, you need to give what you get. Someone gives you their work because they trust you. Don’t abuse that trust. Ask them what they need from you as a reader. Try to understand what they are trying to do with their piece. Give thoughtful notes accordingly.

4. Be open to mentorship

Before I even finished my grad school application, I knew I wanted one particular faculty member in the MFA program to be my mentor. They wrote in similar genres, had a background similar to mine, and built a career that most resembled what I thought I wanted. While we did connect, we didn’t establish the kind of relationship I hoped.

As my time in the program went on, I found a mentor in another faculty member. They became my champion, even contacting the artistic director of a local theater for me.

Though there was not a lot of similarity in our experiences or our writing, this became less important as time went on. Our missions as artists were similar. They appreciated things in my writing that made me feel insecure and helped me realize these perceived weaknesses weren’t points of shame. They were what made my stories distinctive.

Be open to mentorship from unexpected sources. Everyone has something to teach you.

5. No disclaimers

“This is garbage, but here’s what I’ve written.”

Oh yeah, I’m excited now. Thanks for the garbage.

But seriously, the fact that we’re workshopping a piece of writing means it needs more time to bake. That’s a given. Tell your first readers why you need their help, not why you’re wasting their time. If anything, take heart in the fact of your being brave enough to ask them for help.

6. Don’t be defensive

Taking notes on your work can be daunting, even embarrassing. In workshopping plays and screenplays, especially, I’ve gotten notes that made me go, “Huh?”

Some writers’ inclination is to respond. They try to explain away the notes they’re receiving. I try to be a blank slate when my work is on the table. My philosophy is my turn to speak was in the writing. When I’m taking notes, I want to listen, not respond. The fact is: even the dumb notes can be worth thinking about. What prompted this response? Is there any merit to it — even just a little bit? Anything that gets you thinking deeply about your piece is worth it — even the most irritating notes.

7. Just because it happened doesn’t mean it’s interesting

I’ve heard “But this actually happened” in a lot of different workshops. I’ve even said it myself.

As writers, one of our jobs is to navigate that chasm between entertaining and informing. The burden is never clearer than when we’re writing fictionalized versions of real events. Because they actually happened, even the most mundane details are suddenly filled with meaning.

If a scene, moment, or even a character adds nothing to the overarching story or robs it of clarity, ask yourself why it’s there. How do these details add to the larger story we’re trying to tell? Write with that question in mind.

What we leave out of stories, particularly historical ones, is just as meaningful as what we include. Yet you can’t include every detail. What you choose to highlight should complement your point of view. Even if based on true events, your story will still stink of you and your perspective and your beliefs, so embrace the stink and kill some darlings.

8. Learn to do everything

Writing is the easy part.

Make time to learn what goes into the labor that makes your work possible — even if it’s on a simplistic level. I’m talking about directing, editing, casting, set design, lighting, photography, sound, costumes, producing, copy editing, publishing, web design, etc.

Once you see the labor it takes to bring your story to an audience, it will make you more thoughtful not just toward the people performing that labor, but also toward your own work.

9. Know who you are

“You write about grief,” my professor told me — and with authority, too.

My initial response was pushback. I didn’t like the idea of being pigeon-holed — even if he was right. I had never thought of my work as a brand before. I hated the thought. But if I wanted to be a professional writer, I needed to know what I was selling.

In the second year of my MFA program, we focused on professional development. We were tasked with coming up with writer’s bios, artistic statements, and anecdotes to tell when pitching ourselves for jobs. The assignment, essentially, was to package our own story for sale. There’s a cynical take-away from that, I suppose. I can’t pretend there isn’t. But it was also exactly what I needed.

Of course, my professor didn’t mean that grief is all I write about. Any writer you love has recurring themes. Each new story is a different way of exploring those themes. Identifying what made me “marketable” gave me new insight into who I was as a writer and as a person.

“I write about grief,” I say with authority. “My characters always seem to be looking for something they’ve lost.”

10. Other people’s success is not your failure

There are real barriers to entry for a lot of writers. We’re constantly having to reckon with and ask for more and better representation of people of color, women, queer people, people with disabilities, etc. The reality is these groups are even more underrepresented behind the camera than they are in front of it. Going to Northwestern only reminded me how many people who break into the entertainment industry already have ties to it.

Some writers get caught up in the feast or famine mentality of it all. An opportunity afforded to a colleague, whether they were up for the same opportunity or not, can quickly become a chip on their shoulder. Chips on the shoulder can grow heavy.

We all have doubts. We all have that nagging feeling this wasn’t meant for us, the industry doesn’t want us, we’re wasting our time and energy. But you keep trying. And celebrate your friends when they do well, because, hopefully, they’ll do the same for you. I know mine do.

I learned quickly, as I and my cohort of writers succeeded and failed in a variety of competitions, grants, and festivals, that being proud of your colleagues’ success takes nothing away from you. You have to be confident in your voice, your work, and your artistry if you want to make it.

The real lessons I learned in my MFA program might have been learned anywhere, but I didn’t get to choose where or how or for how much. All know is I am a better writer, collaborator, and person for having learned them.

They/he. Writer of fiction, screenplays, plays, reviews, essays, and poetry. Chicago. https://linktr.ee/jshetina

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