What should be on a "Personal MFA in Creative Writing" reading list?
December 22, 2009 11:05 AM   Subscribe

What titles should be on a "Personal MFA in Creative Writing Fiction" reading list?

You don't have the money/time/inclination to actually attend a MFA program for creative writing, instead you just want a reading list to plow through on your own time. What titles should be on that reading list? Non-fiction, fiction, memoir, etc.
posted by thepalephantom to Education (18 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
I personally think you should read Ulysses. It's the blueprint of 20th century literature.
posted by milarepa at 11:11 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

"On Writing" by Stephen King
"First Words: Earliest Writing from Favorite Contemporary Authors" edited by Paul Mandelbaum
posted by camworld at 11:26 AM on December 22, 2009

Sorry, I think this question is way too vague to result in meaningful answers. Everyone's favorite books will be named here. You could have asked, "what are the most important literary books ever," and gotten suggestions that are just as useful.

Here are a couple of suggestions, specific to writing, that I think are very important books on creative writing:

Richard Lanham, Style: An Anti-Textbook
Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium
Various collections of essays by William Gass
John Gardner, On Writers and Writing
Robertson Davies, The Merry Heart: Reflections on Writing, Reading, and the World of Books
James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (I suggest this because this book gives a great deal of information about Beckett's production and working methods, and is fascinating and useful for that reason alone)
The Letters of William Burroughs (for the same reason I recommend the Beckett biography)
posted by jayder at 11:30 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

For someone who wants to get a broad introduction on what constitutes good writing, I think a great place to start is the New Yorker Fiction podcast (authors reading other authors' work, and commenting on it).

Also, if you want a grounding in western canon, maybe Harold Bloom's works would be a good place to start.
posted by archofatlas at 11:32 AM on December 22, 2009

It sounds like this might fit the bill:

posted by Verdant at 11:42 AM on December 22, 2009

Here is a nonfiction reading list from U of Iowa.
posted by mattbucher at 11:49 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

As far as making sense of the actual writing process, the introductory chapter from Madison Smartt Bell's 2000 Narrative Design, which is an anthology of short stories with commentary intended for intermediate college creative writing workshops, gives a fascinating account of the connections between aspects of meditation and the type of mental concentration necessary for writing imaginatively:


At the level of composing sentences, I'd recommend a book that's actually marketed for middle and high-school English courses, but I've used with college students and learned much from myself. Harry Noden's 1999 Image Grammar: Using Grammatical Structures to Teach Writing, as the title implies, is about learning the sorts of grammatical constructions and sentence patterns through which writers in English can convey vivid, detail-rich description, an ability relevant both to prose narrative and verse.


Don't let the packaging fool you; Noden is dead on with his grammatical/rhetorical analyses, and the exercises can definitely expand your toolbox of stylistic choices. Also, once you're aware of the various patterns and constructions Noden describes, you'll start recognizing them in stories, etc., by published authors.
posted by 5Q7 at 12:03 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whether you want to write fiction or nonfiction, read Orson Welles "Politics and the English Language."

A good nuts and bolts book on writing (and maybe even getting published) is Carolyn See's "Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers"

And to be fiction-specific, I would recommend "Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction" by Charles Baxter.

Best of luck. Still a good idea to get involved in group discussions even if you can't do an MFA. Consider a writers group and/or book club as it will improve your writing and your thinking. Oh yeah, and don't forget to write.
posted by scottr at 12:44 PM on December 22, 2009

Best book about writing I've ever read and probably the only one I needed to:

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Buy it, read it, then start writing.
posted by missjenny at 1:06 PM on December 22, 2009

Everything by Noah Lukeman. Most of the recs suggested so far seem a bit on the fluffy ~writing is such a deep experience~ side -- I've read nearly all of them -- and while those can be nice in a preaching-to-the-choir sort of way, I can't say I've ever learned anything from them. Lukeman is way more nuts and bolts, and on top of that, I think he expresses the fluffier side in a much more meaningful way than the other authors. Lukeman is a literary agent for a lot of authors you've probably heard of.

In addition to his print books, he offers a few free ebooks on his website that you should check out when you get around to writing query letters and selecting an agent.
posted by Nattie at 1:15 PM on December 22, 2009

Here is another great reading list (for fiction) from the Gotham Writers Workshop. Also, this one (PDF) from SJSU looks good. As far as books about writing and the writing process, I would recommend Brian Kiteley's The 3AM Epiphany (Uncommon Writing Exercises to Transform Your Fiction) and The 4AM Breakthrough (Unconventional Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction).
posted by mattbucher at 1:26 PM on December 22, 2009

Well, there's always The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. (I haven't read the whole thing, but I've browsed it and it seems good.)
posted by Ouisch at 6:16 PM on December 22, 2009

scottr, Politics and the English Language is certainly worth reading, but it is by George Orwell (Eric Blair), not Orson Welles.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 2:27 AM on December 23, 2009

The Turkey City Lexicon
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:17 AM on December 23, 2009

John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist has, in addition to some interesting opinions on what he thinks good writing is, very reassuring advice/hand-holding about making what for most people would/will be a pretty significant lifestyle transition.
posted by skwt at 10:02 AM on December 26, 2009

90% of an MFA program is sitting around getting criticism of your writing. It's not a reading-program as much as a writing-program. I think you're asking about that 10% of the MFA program. The top program is called the Writer's Workshop. But, this is similar to the Personal MBA advice that is out there, which usually provides a list of books but disclaims that actual mentorship and experience is the best way to get MBA knowledge.

Perhaps try reviewing such MFA programs' syllabi, if you can find them. U.S. News and World Report listed the top programs once, here. It's a good guideline of where to look.

Here is the list of courses at the Johns Hopkins workshop, so you can get an idea of what types of subjects are surveyed in an MFA course.

You would likely best benefit from books that encourage you to write, provide writing exercises, and give you the tools to be critical of your writing. Fiction Writer's Workshop is a decent book. Other ones posted are probably good, too.

Also understand that the top MFA programs are really geared toward non-genre literary fiction, as educated by the classics. The tip to read Ulysses (by Homer) is a good one. A good classic foundation would include the Iliad, the Aeneid, Dante's Inferno, Paradise Lost, some Shakespeare plays, and the Bible. Other books you should read can be found on any universal high school literature reading list.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:54 PM on December 27, 2009

Seconding Bird by Bird.

Also, its subtitle specifically says it's about writing non-fiction, but I just finished William Zinsser's On Writing Well, and found it to be an effective guide for anyone seeking to communicate with clarity and creativity.
posted by Robot Johnny at 8:23 PM on December 28, 2009

I know this question is quite old but as a slightly embittered current MFA student, I wanted to add my $.02.

The most important part of my MFA (fiction) program has been the workshop--other writing students are forced to read and comment extensively on my work, as is the instructor, and my writing has made huge leaps in the two years I've been in this program. That is the real gift of the MFA program--other people who *must* read your stuff and comment. You can find that elsewhere, of course, but you would need to carefully select your reader pool to find good, honest writers and readers to critique your work.

I'm not saying that you should get an MFA for that experience alone--the point I'm trying to make is that's the true experience of an MFA, not reading, and perhaps that's the experience you should be shooting for.

As far as reading goes, I'm firmly of the belief that there is no "right" way/genre/style to write, and there are no books that are inherently better than any others just because they're better. There's the canon, there are the classics, but most of those I've snoozed my way through. My favorite is contemporary 'literary' (whatever that means, again, it's a slippery term) fiction, and that's what I want to write, so that's what I read.

So here is what should go on your list: anything you damn well want. Anything you like, dislike, are interested in. By all means take the advice above into consideration, but if you can't get into a recommended book, don't force yourself and don't feel less literary because of it. Read the kind of stuff that you want to write, and you'll learn. And find that writing group--there is nothing more helpful to writing (so I've experienced) than having someone rip apart your work and give you a truckload of ideas to work with on the next draft.

(also, thirding the Bird by Bird rec, I think it's a fantastic book about craft)

(ps- my bitterness comes mostly from the politics of my department, not with MFA programs in general)
posted by LokiBear at 12:55 PM on March 9, 2010

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