Deb: The Self-Made Writer

I’m a teacher by training, and a writer by – well, that’s what I mean to find out, the proper way to complete that little prepositional phrase.  By fortitude? By delusion? By luck?
Self-madeness (perhaps also self-madness) is embedded in our culture.  Emerson comes to mind, his lovely aphorisms fitting and useful for an adolescent nation struggling to find its legs.  Rugged individualism, striking out on one’s own, up by the bootstraps, that sort of thing.  Emerson extols these virtues as if with a large broom, broad sweeps, stirring dust.  To thine ownself be true!  Foolish consistency, hobgoblin of little minds!  Imitation is suicide!
As it turns out, Emerson never used the term “self-made man,” at least not that I’ve found. Still he managed to make a decent living on the lecture circuit promoting the concept, even as he admitted, “all my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.”
Originality, yes.  But to what extent is a writer self-made? What of the writer as apprentice, at the feet of the masters, watching and learning?  What of the community of writers, struggling together? 
In a series of posts, one for each week of 2012, I’ll explore the idea of the self-made writer – to what extent it is myth, to what extent it’s not only possible but necessary.  I’ll take up Emerson’s challenge to “study with hope and love the precise thing to be done,” which is, in our case, to write.  Habits, attitudes, community, discovery, craft, even promotion – these we’ll ponder in this series of instructional musings.
You might recall that around this time last year I posted on a related topic, my DIYMFA (Do It Yourself MFA) program.  I explained that while circumstances have kept me from pursuing a formal degree, I wanted to fashion as best I could for myself a program that included as many MFA-type opportunities as I could: meaningful critiques of my work, voracious and systematic reading to enhance the quality of my work, a dynamic community of writers who share my goals.  The ultimate goal of my self-fashioned program is to produce writing that is better, richer, and truer than any I’ve done before.  In eschewing a formal degree program, I of course mean no disrespect to the formal process of schooling.  I’m a teacher by training, remember, and I also think a fair number of Emerson’s sweeping admonitions about striking out on one’s own are hogwash.

My DIYMFA program is now entering year three.  It’s looking like this may be one of those long-term programs.  Five years, six, maybe ten.  A lifetime, even.  The self-made do tend to self-wander.  Of the 45 books on my DIYMFA reading list, I only got through 21 (which means you can still join me in reading if you like).  I finished the novel I began, and it does feel stronger than any of my previous efforts. I also spent a good chunk of 2011 researching a narrative nonfiction project that should go out in proposal later this year – a project that had no place in my DIYMFA plan.  And while I wrote another children’s book, happily accepted for publication in 2013, I stand with Alfred Kazin when he says, “The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax.”

Try This:  List at least three of your aspirational writers, writers whose work feels so perfect and true that you can’t imagine ever writing as well as they do.  Then choose from reviews of their work three or four phrases that you would love to have someone use to describe your writing someday – “achingly wise,” “sensitive and deeply insightful,” that sort of thing.  Keep this as your watch list for the year.  As you read new books from each of these writers, search actively for how they earn their praise – the exquisite sentence, the character pushed past her limits, the detail lovingly rendered. 
Check This Out:  The Portable MFA in Creative Writing from The New York Writers Workshop.  “The education I received for over $30,000 can be condensed to eight easy-to-forget points, and I offer them all for the price of this book,” writes Tim Tomlinson in the introduction to this pithy and practical handbook.  In sections devoted to fiction, personal essay and memoir, magazine writing, poetry, and playwriting, instructors from the NYW Workshop offer succinct thoughts on craft supplemented by exercises and further reading.  The fiction section of my copy is heavily dog-eared and marked – my sign of an outstanding resource.

Deb’s “Self-Made Writer” posts are also archived at

1 thought on “Deb: The Self-Made Writer”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Love the new blog look and the year-long focus; have missed your posts about your own personal writing journey and I look forward to reading more. (And I appreciate the structure of this series, with tips. Nice!)

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