One of the most important parts of a DIY MFA is putting together a reading list that represents the area of writing that you want to focus on. That’s the beauty of DIY MFA: you don’t have to read something that doesn’t resonate with you.
I learned this concept from a professor in my MFA program who told us on the first day of class: “If you can’t get past page 10 of a book, put it away. Life’s too short and there are too many great books to read for you to spend time struggling through a book that doesn’t resonate with you.” Unlike in a traditional MFA where your professors select which books you must read, in DIY MFA, you don’t have to fight your way through a book that doesn’t interest you.
Why? Because you get to set the reading list.
Reading is a central component to DIY MFA. If you don’t read, you won’t know what books are out there and how your own book fits within the body of literature. Reading gives your work context, allowing you to learn from writers who came before helping you figure out what makes your book unique. A writer who doesn’t read is working in a vacuum. That said, one of the first things you need to do in the literature study component of DIY MFA is create a reading list and commit to reading the books on it in a timely fashion.
There are four types of books that should go on your list. Two of the categories revolve around and will help inform your current writing project, while the other two categories are broader and reach beyond your work-in-progress (WIP).
1) Competitive Books
In this category are books that will be your WIP’s closest competition. The goal in reading books in this category is to know what’s out there and figure out how your WIP can stand out.
2) Informative Books
This category contains books that are similar in theme as your WIP but not necessarily in the same genre or age group. The books in this category might not necessarily impact your WIP directly, but they should help inform your writing and expand your vision. This is also where you put any books of research you need to read for your WIP.
3) Contemporary Books
This category fluctuates more than any other because there’s always something new out in your chosen genre that will rush to the top of your To Be Read list. The point here is to be aware of what’s new in your genre and read a selection so that you know what’s out there and where the genre is going. Not sure where to start looking? Go to a library or bookstore and ask: What’s new? What’s selling?
This category is different for each reader. Personally, I like to focus on short fiction because it allows me to get a taste of a writer’s style without committing to a long book. Also, I love reading short fiction because you get the whole story at a glance. It’s a great way to study story structure and character development.
As you can probably already tell, there’s a lot of overlap between the four categories, and that’s OK. The point is, in order to maximize your productivity don’t just read books at random, choose books that serve a concrete function for your goals. After all, the best way to learn to write is by reading. The thing is, to really get the most out of your reading, you have to be strategic about it.
It’s also important to reevaluate your list every few months, adjusting it as your writing projects develop and grow. I like to update my list every three months, that way it gives me enough time to make actual progress in my reading, but isn’t such a long stretch that I end up reading books that don’t serve my current project. How frequently you update your reading list is up to you, just remember that you’re not carving this in stone and it’s OK to change things around.
In addition to forming a reading list, you also need to read work that’s self-contained so you can see the whole arc of the project at one glance. This is why, if you want to learn from the masters, I suggest reading the short form (i.e. short stories, essays and poems). Unlike novels or other long works, the short form allows you to read and take in the entire piece in one sitting, which in turn lets you analyze how the piece is working both on the macro and micro levels. When we read longer works, it’s hard step back and see how the work functions as a whole. With short stories, essays and poems, we can zoom in and out, inspecting the piece at hand both in its entirety and at the paragraph or sentence level.
In order to read with purpose, we first have to re-teach ourselves to read. We cannot be lazy. We must read as writers. In this regard, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose is a valuable addition to any writer’s library. This book guides us and teaches us to read literature with an eye toward understanding how the writing really works.
It is worthwhile to invest in a small collection of short form works in your genre. Below I list a few resources and books that I have found useful. I have researched many anthologies (especially for short stories) and have yet to find the perfect one, but the ones listed below are about as close as it gets, at least for me.
- Poetry 180
- Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor
(This lovely collection covers a broad spectrum of poems and styles.)
- The Art of the Short Story, edited by Gioia & Gwynn
(The best short story anthology I have found to date. It contains most of the greats and is the textbook I be use the classes I teach.)
- Best American Short Stories, edited by various authors
(An annual anthology of the best new short stories published that year.)
- Project Gutenberg
(An online database of free books! You can even put them on your kindle or e-reader. You won’t find contemporary stuff here, but you will find the classics.)
- The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate
(A solid anthology of personal essays, from the forerunners to the twentieth century.)
- The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
(Great compilation of American narrative non-fiction.)
- The Best American Essays, edited by various authors
(This yearly publication is a great sampling of the best new essays of each year.)
Ultimately, the goal is to find a go-to book or set of stories, essays or poems that you can turn to whenever you feel stuck. For me, there are five stories that read to when I need to study the literature, each one giving me insight about a particular aspect of the craft. These are my go-to stories (all of which can be found in The Art of the Short Story, listed above):
- A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (for plot)
- The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (for character development)
- Cathedral by Raymond Carver (for voice and character)
- Roman Fever by Edith Wharton (for dialogue and plot)
- Everyday Use by Alice Walker (for theme)