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It's Christmas: Don't Get an MFA -- Write a Story, Win a Prize

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It used to be that writers were asked how they write -- pen, pencil, typewriter? These were the days before novels were composed as text messages. No one cares anymore how writers write. We see them writing in Starbucks or the corner café, with everyone else banging out emails, blogs, resumés, and cover letters for non-existent jobs.

These days, writers are asked whether they -- the questioner -- should get an MFA in order to be a writer. Undergraduates in creative writing classes don't often ask; they usually announce that that's their plan after graduation. Here's where I leap in and try to steer them in another direction. They're shocked. I must sound like a Dickensian scourge, wanting to withhold food from children. Please, sir, can I have another degree? Absolutely not.

The short answer is that the more time you have to live in the world -- not the risk-free academic world of workshops, conferences and stipends -- the more wisdom and experience you bring to your writing. Some folks tell students to hold off two, three, or four years before getting an MFA, on the theory that what you learn away from school is as valuable, if not more valuable, as what you learn in school.

I take a more extreme position. I don't put a return date on the proposition. I encourage them to pursue other careers. I remind them of all the wonderful writers -- literary and popular -- who were doctors, lawyers, journalists, school teachers, soldiers, and sailors. Please, add names to this list as they occur to you: Chekhov, Conrad, Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, Frank McCourt, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Scott Turow, Louis Auchincloss, Perry Klass, and Patricia Cornwell.

But I don't suggest the students go cold turkey. I urge them to take classes at adult education centers, writing centers, and colleges and universities with adult learning departments. In New York City, there's the YMHA, Gotham Writers Workshop, and the New School. In Boston, there's Grub Street and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, for starters. If there's a writing center or a place in your hometown, take a moment to list it in the comments. Novelist Samantha Chang took her first writing class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education; today she's the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. And there are dozens of summer writing programs, including the New York State Summer Writers Institute, where I teach every year. The AWP has a great list.

There's a second group of people who ask about MFA programs -- older adults eager to write but who don't plan to devote their lives to it. They've taken courses here and there, and they want something more rigorous. I recommend low residency MFA programs, where you meet as a group twice a year for five or ten days, go home and submit work to your teacher via email. There are many such programs, from coast to coast, that the AWP can point you to.

Plenty of writers proceed without courses, without MFAs. They read voraciously, and learn about writing from reading, the way we learned to write before there were courses in it. Writing -- fiction nonfiction -- is storytelling, and we are hardwired to tell stories, to make sense of our lives. For more on the topic of MFAs, pro and con, check out recent postings on Alexander Chee's blog, Koreanish.

You're probably wondering: What's Christmas got to do with any of this? Beginning writers often have wonderful stories to tell but not all the tools with which to bring them to life. Their stories often lack a sense of time and place, which are essential foundations to everything that happens. Good writing is like real estate; it's a lot about location, location, location. Where would Dickens be without London's fog, Tony Hillerman without the Southwest, Joan Didion without LA's freeways? And storytellers don't get very far without a ticking clock. Even a story that starts "Once upon a time," gets specific very soon. "On the night of the ball, Cinderella had many chores." Wasn't it "midnight" when she had to leave the ball, or something catastrophic would happen?

Even if you're not writing a fairy tale -- or a thriller -- time and space are as important as plot and character. Which brings me to Christmas. One of the assignments I sometimes give my writing students is to write a short story set at Christmas time. There's plenty of time and space built into Christmas, even if you don't celebrate it. There's isn't another day of the year that's more difficult to avoid that December 25th. (Overheard on the street, a guy talking into his cellphone; "How can you not know what day Christmas is?")

The story doesn't have to be about a family that celebrates Christmas, or even a culture that acknowledges it (I once went to Turkey to avoid Christmas -- and ended up with a novel on my hands.) But whether we celebrate it or go out of our ways to avoid it, it has a presence in the culture that starts, oh, a few minutes after Labor Day. Try finding a radio station that isn't playing Christmas songs come November first.

Do the characters in your story do a Jewish Christmas (movies and Chinese food), a Muslim Christmas (I'm eager to hear what that might be), a mixed Christmas (plenty of tension or jollity around Jewish family members who don't like Christmas or like having an excuse to celebrate it), a dreaded Christmas (mom/dad/brother always gets drunk and ruins it), or a full-blown Christmas Christmas (whatever that might be)? This year, plenty of Christmas stories will be about people doing without. If you want to read some Christmas stories to get in the mood, there's Dicken's Christmas Carol, Truman Capote's short story, "A Christmas Memory," and Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle."

If you have a Christmas story -- fiction or nonfiction -- that's 1500 words or less, enter it in the Christmas Story Contest by December 27th. The winner receives a copy of my new anthology about writers and their mentors: Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives.

Send your stories by 12/27 at 11.59pm, in the text of an email to: info@elizabethbenedict.com.

Happy writing, merry holidays.

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers, and just recently edited Mentors, Muses & Monsters. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University.

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