The People’s MFA

I have a new essay on Neil Fein’s Magnificent Nose today about the People’s MFA, and about a particular session taught by Professor Michael Chabon. I’ve been thinking for some time about the process by which writers consciously and unconsciously model, imitate, steal, and adapt elements from the authors we love, and I think it is evolving into a sort of irregular series.  Enjoy!

I have deep respect for people who have completed a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Devoting two years of full-time study to producing acres of drafts and absorbing what can be painful critique, knowing all the while that there will be no “Help Wanted: MFA-Accredited Novelist” ad to answer at its conclusion, is a glorious achievement. The MFA attests not only to a writer’s profound commitment to the craft, but to an enviable faith in her own talent.

For those of us, however, who lack the money or time, or maybe even the faith, the People’s MFA is an inexpensive, time-tested alternative. Admission is free and open to all, and the professors are the finest in history. Some of them are even still alive.

If you’ve read like a starving beast ever since you worked out how the alphabet adds up to pictures and people, then you’ve already completed the prerequisites. The coursework begins when you read the authors you admire, and even those you don’t, in search of writing lessons. When, instead of losing yourself in a story, you deliberately step out of it to raise your hand and ask the professor some questions.

  • “I get a sense that this character is in despair, even though you’ve shown him interacting with people cheerfully over what seem to be ordinary events in a happy life. Where and how did you create my unease?”
  • “You made these people up, and I don’t know anyone remotely like them, yet I cried over a moment of unwarranted mercy and forgiveness between them. How did you make me care?”
  • “I finished reading your book a week ago, and lines from it are still bouncing around my consciousness, coloring my interactions, forcing me to reassess my assumptions. What techniques allowed you to take up residence in my mind, even after I closed the book?”
  • “It’s three o’clock in the morning and my alarm will go off at 6:15. And yet, you just made me turn the page again! What sorcery is this? Teach it to me!”

“Go back to the text,” the professor always replies, without a trace of impatience. “All the answers are there.”

Read the rest here.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
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