The MFA From Nowhere: A Free Creative Writing Education

Leigh Stein
From the September/October 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

By definition, a mooch is “a beggar, a scrounger.” It’s someone who borrows cash to get a coffee and never pays you back, someone who overstays a welcome on your couch. Although I’d almost rather die than do either of these things, I’ve been scrounging on a much larger scale for years. I’ve always thought of myself as being self-taught, working outside the system even as I went from bar to bar, apartment to apartment, workshopping my writing with MFA graduates who opened the door for me. Only very recently have I realized I’m not the autodidact I thought I was. Let’s get real: When it comes to education, I’m a huge mooch.  

I have done everything to dodge a traditional education. When I was seventeen I dropped out of high school, which horrified my parents at the time, but today has a funny punch line: I was a high school dropout who worked at the New Yorker. I attended four colleges and didn’t graduate with a BA until this spring, at the age of twenty-eight. In 2012, I published two books with Melville House, coordinating the release dates around my academic calendar. I went on tour for my novel during winter vacation, and my poetry collection came out during the summer semester, when I was taking only an online biology class. My publisher wanted to print my age in the bio on the back of my books, but I preferred not to. I don’t think of myself as some precocious whiz kid who got a book deal. I’ve just done some things in my life out of order. While my peers were finishing their BAs, I was writing and publishing my first work. By the time my books came out, I’d been writing, workshopping, and editing them for seven years.

On book tour, when strangers asked where I received my MFA, I didn’t go into any of this. I just smiled and said I didn’t have one, which usually disappointed at least one twentysomething in the audience (I’m looking at you, Milwaukee) who had only come to my reading, it seemed, to ask for advice on applying to programs.

“Over the years I’ve found writing groups on the Internet,” I’d say, trying to offer alternative advice. “Just try going on and look for a writing workshop. It’s free!”

The audience usually looked at me like I wasn’t to be trusted. How could they relinquish precious pages of their multigenerational magic realism to strangers they met on the Internet? What value does a free workshop even have, compared with paying tuition for a piece of paper from an institution your family has heard of?

In Raleigh, North Carolina, one of my online friends was actually in the audience (he had driven six hours, from Athens, Georgia, to be there). “Look at Nathan!” I announced. “We met online!” We’d been sharing poetry with each other since 2004. To this, our first in-person meeting, he brought me his own copy of The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert. Inside he wrote, “I wanted to give you something important to me, and something that I have had change me. Your book is wonderful and from the heart, like this. All thrive, N.”

Nathan is just one of many writers off whom I’ve sponged a literary education (although I did buy him dinner that night in Raleigh, after he made that long drive). For years, online and through my network of acquaintances in New York City, I’ve come to find friends and mentors who have offered support, constructive criticism, and good books to read—all the best parts of an MFA program, without any of the academic bureaucracy or intellectual posturing I’ve heard about through the gossip mill.

When I was twenty, I moved from Chicago to New York City to be a writer. I had a job lined up, checking coats in the illegal-fire-escape hallway of a nightclub, which left my days free to write. Doing what I did best, I went online and found a writing workshop on Craigslist.

The organizers asked that interested applicants submit a short story. Mine was about a teenage babysitter who has a violent relationship with her girlfriend. I’d had one short story published by then, and a handful of poems. Those were my only credentials.

Luckily my story was good enough, and I was accepted. Also accepted: a literary agent (MA, University of Arizona), a headhunter (MFA, Sarah Lawrence), and a professor (MFA, Southampton College), as well as a magazine editor and a journalist. We met once a week in the back room of a bar in Brooklyn that never carded me, and the evening always concluded with the owners ordering us a large cheese pizza.

These smart, funny, talented people took my work seriously and treated me like I was in the club, even after I admitted I’d never heard the word postmodernism before. They taught me about craft and style. The journalist let me borrow her copy of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) by Philip Gourevitch, and the professor recommended The Book of Disquiet (Pantheon Books, 1991) by Fernando Pessoa. 

In addition to workshopping my fiction, I also initiated an e-mail correspondence with a poet (MFA, University of Michigan) whose chapbook I loved. His writing was darkly funny and terrifically sad. We exchanged e-mails at least once a day for years. Thanks to him, I found the work of James Tate and Bob Hicok, Jennifer L. Knox and Josh Bell, poets who have been hugely influential to my work. I sent him new poems as I wrote them, and he did the same. During this one-on-one tutorial with the poet, I wrote most of the poems that would one day become my full-length collection. Looking back over our e-mail correspondence, I think I basically got a three-year low-res MFA in poetry for free.

But writing short stories and poems wasn’t enough. I wanted to be a “real” writer. I wanted a book with my name on the cover, so, at twenty-two, I decided to write a novel. It never occurred to me to apply to an MFA program; at this point I hadn’t even finished my BA. Jason, my boyfriend at the time, made a deal with me: We would move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I could write a novel, and then we would go to Los Angeles so he could become a movie star. At twenty-two, these aspirations seemed equally realistic, and maybe they were.