Homeschooling My MFA
Originally appeared as “Be Your Own Best Teacher,” Natural Life Magazine, November-December 2009
Eighteen years ago, when I first took a writing course through my local adult education program, I noticed that most of the published writers I admired seemed to have MFAs. That’s a Master of Fine Arts—the art of creative writing to be specific. I read all the anthologies: The O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays. Or perhaps more accurately, I read all the anthology contributor sections. I’d start reading a story or an essay, maybe a paragraph or two, then I’d stop the charade and flip to the back of the book, to the section with the contributors’ bios. Oh, eventually I’d get back to the writing, but first I’d work thorough that contributor section, scanning for writers who weren’t English professors, who didn’t have MFAs. I needed to find those exceptions, the ones who proved I could eventually get published, since I lacked an MFA myself.
My husband and I were planning to have kids soon, so I’d calculate how long it would be before I could apply to an MFA program. Once we had a kid in kindergarten? Or after the second (hypothetical) kid was in school too? What I really wanted, almost as much as I wanted the kids, was to be published, and I was convinced that an MFA was the only way to get there.
Well. The kids turned up in time and kept me busy. By the year the oldest was four, and his sister one, we decided to homeschool, so the whole kindergarten/MFA scenario disappeared along with the need for a lunch box. Any MFA plans were postponed indefinitely. And then even more indefinitely, if it’s possible to extend the indefinite, with the arrival of our third child, almost ten years after the first.
Still, I kept writing. Lots when my oldest was a napping baby; less by the time his sister stopped napping altogether. I went out one night each week to write in a café. I took adult education courses every few years: Creative Nonfiction, a prose style workshop. I formed a few different writing groups with people from those classes over the years—we’d meet once a month to eat expensive cheese and give feedback on our projects.
This went on for years. For seventeen years, to be precise. Then a year or so ago, I heard the writer Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, interviewed on the podcast Writers on Writing. The interviewer described how Gilbert had “fashioned her own MFA” in creative writing. Instead of spending her time in a classroom, she had written, read and traveled. “Your teachers are all there on your bookshelves,” Gilbert explained. “Your practice is your own repetitive, constant work at creating sentences everyday.”
Hearing Gilbert discuss the notion of fashioning her own MFA made me think: It’s what I’d been doing all along with my own writing. Even more, without realizing it, I’d used many of the practices that have been vital to my family as homeschoolers:
- Pursue your passions. Homeschoolers know that kids learn best when they’re fascinated with their subject. My older son could likely impress you with his insight into Alfred Hitchcock’s films; my daughter could draw you a detailed timeline of the history of Broadway musicals. My kids developed expertise on these topics because they were attracted to them, and they took the time to explore those attractions. Writing lured me. I could have ignored that, could have spent my life wishing I were a writer. Instead I just wrote, plodding away at it for years—keeping journals, writing short stories that couldn’t resolve themselves, essays that couldn’t find a thesis. I didn’t have an audience, couldn’t write anything that seemed publication-worthy. Still, I sat in my chair and kept writing, motivated by the simple pleasure I found in manipulating words.
- Let learning happen slowly. Homeschoolers realize that learning doesn’t have to be concentrated into a semester’s work. It can accrue slowly, almost imperceptibly, over the course of months or years, without term papers or final exams. I didn’t realize how much my older son had learned about Greek mythology over the years until I heard him at nine, interpreting the Parthenon marbles for his grandparents with a docent’s expertise as we wandered the British Museum. Likewise, I didn’t notice my writing improving month-by-month, or even year-by-year. I didn’t concentrate what I’d learned into the pages of a Master’s Thesis. Still, after nearly two decades I can look back and see how much my writing has improved since I took that first fiction course in 1990. I’ve developed a writing voice—a voice that tries to speak with humor, that loves lists; a voice that lapses into metaphor and has a weakness for lyrical lines.
- Let learning wax and wane. Homeschooling kids often go on learning jags—they can’t read enough about medieval warfare for months, or they draw Artist Trading Cards for weeks. Then, just as suddenly, that fascination seems to dissipate in favor of a new one. But later it may reappear, sometimes in a new form—a desire to learn about the Civil War, say, or to draw with charcoal. Over the years, my writing sometimes dwindled to little more than a journal entry every few weeks, most notably after our third child was born, when I also had two older children with activities that required my shuttling skills. But eventually life calmed down, the journal entries picked up, and writing wheedled its way back into my life.
- Be your own best teacher. It doesn’t take homeschoolers long to discover the power of teaching oneself. No one else knows precisely what you need, and when you need it. I’ve watched my teenage son teach himself on the computer—how to record music, how to podcast, how to use professional film editing software. Once, in a digital storytelling class, he even taught the teachers a thing or two about the photo editing software they were using. I didn’t need grad school professors to improve my writing. I had those teachers that Gilbert mentioned—the ones on my bookshelves—showing me how to write similes, how to use humor, how leave a reader satisfied while still longing just a little. When I wanted to understand how essayist Adam Gopnik could entertain me, enlighten me and also make me sigh, I highlighted lines in his books. I analyzed why those lines moved me. I tried on his style and discovered that I’m no Adam Gopnik. But studying him and other writers, from E. M. Forster to Anne Lamott, has helped me find my own writing voice.
- Take classes, if you want to. Homeschoolers sometimes take classes—for fun, for group learning, for an instructor’s expertise. Ceramics, Shakespeare, electronics at the science museum. I took writing classes every few years for my own reasons—for inspiration, for deadlines, for feedback from professionals, for an audience. I met fellow aspiring writers; we formed the writing groups I’ve mentioned. Some of those writers have become my most treasured readers, able to offer just the feedback my writing needs.
- Embrace nontraditional learning outcomes. After years of self-directed learning, some homeschoolers decide that a college degree isn’t what they want or need. Their own goals might lead them to a job, an apprenticeship, to travel. I don’t have an official MFA after eighteen years of working at my writing. But finally I’m getting published, which was my main reason for wanting that MFA in the first place. Even more, I have the satisfaction that comes with self-improvement–that comes from resolve and effort and getting my butt in the writing chair day after day.
At this point my youngest child is seven; we have years of homeschooling ahead of us. Still, before long my older two will be out on their own, and I think I could manage an MFA program—if I wanted to. But after all these years of writing in slivers and slices of time—early morning, late at night, in a notebook while my youngest takes his swim lesson—I’m sure I’ll want to use any newfound time to sit at my desk and simply write.
I wonder how many homeschooling parents are out there, pursuing their own “degrees”—in landscape gardening perhaps, or culinary arts, or holistic medicine or small business management. To you I say, carry on! Don’t worry over how long it takes, or how slow it goes. Do it for yourself—and do it for your kids. Last year, when one of my essays was published in Mothering magazine, my own kids marveled at my name in the byline, my photo in the bio. They couldn’t believe a professional artist had illustrated my words, that the fancy-fonted lines highlighted in the margins were mine.
My kids haven’t seen me earn an MFA, but they’ve watched me master my aspirations. And that may be one of the best lessons I could ever offer them.