I Don’t Care About Your MFA: On Writing vs. Storytelling

In the eighth grade, I was awarded the Excellence in Language Arts Award from my English teacher at our tiny school assembly. This was not entirely unexpected—I not only wrote novels and short stories that I regularly shared with friends, but also got into a bit of trouble publishing The Gossip Grappler, a newsletter that the gym teacher semi–affectionately called a “rag” and which only lasted about six issues before I pissed some people off by posting verbatim some unflattering things they’d said about themselves in class. It was my first foray into understanding the repercussions of writing and posting things publicly. It also taught me that people appreciated gossipy stories, right up until those stories were about them.

It turned out that each “Excellence in” award that year was given to the best boy and best girl in each category. So I was curious as to whom the male winner would be. I wrote a lot, and I couldn’t imagine whom the teacher would choose to stand next to me. I may have been fourteen, but I knew how to measure myself against others and I was consistently out–writing the small handful of people I actually knew. I will note that this wasn’t a difficult thing to do—it was a small town—but I preened about it nonetheless. I worked harder than anyone else. They went out and… did things. I stayed home typing all my handwritten novels into our shiny word processor. I deserved that award, dammit.

So I was surprised when my teacher called the name of a boy in class whose sole claim to writing proficiency had been that he blatantly plagiarized a short story earlier in the year. One of my friends had come to me a few days after she heard him read the story out loud and showed me the magazine it had come from. To this day I’m not sure why we didn’t tell anyone—I think I said something about how it really didn’t matter because it was just one short story for one assignment. Was it worth being a jerk about? Nobody wants to be a snitch. Maybe I already had an inkling of gender politics back then. We’d be labeled the meddling troublemakers. He’d be painted as a bullied, misunderstood kid.

But there was my teacher standing up there, saying she wasn’t sure who to give this award to until she read this short story that the guy had written earlier in the year—the one she had no idea was plagiarized—and it was so good that she gave him the award based on the strength of the story.

My friend and I exchanged astonished looks.

I had learned that life was unfair before this, of course. But something about seeing somebody getting the equivalent praise I was getting whose accomplishments had amounted to having the gall to type out a short story he found in a magazine really devastated me. Life was not a meritocracy. I knew that no matter how hard I worked, no matter how good I became, it didn’t guarantee success or recognition. Other people were not just going to be better—they were going to get ahead because of who they knew, because of how much money they had, or because they were willing to lie and cheat their way to recognition. It would not surprise me if that guy went on to become a mortgage lender or a banker. He probably has a house in the Hamptons now. But he certainly isn’t foolish enough to try and make a living writing.

More the fool, me.

I attended my first teen writing workshop when I was fourteen. Mostly I found it a bit of a disappointment. I felt that my writing was stronger than everyone else’s, because I was putting together better sentences. Worse, no one seemed to want to be a writer as much as I wanted to be a writer (I was 14. Forgive my teen angst). I went through much of my middle and high school years with a mixture of arrogance and despair, because even though people said how great it was that I could put words on a page, I was getting nothing but rejections from magazines, and no teacher was going to waste time helping me get better when there were kids who needed way more help to finish a one–page paper.

Arrogance and relentless hard work helped me make some inroads. I published my first non–fiction piece in the local paper at 16: a piece about how being in the theater had helped me overcome my intense introversion. My first short story came out when I was 17, about a wizard who turned people into wolves, and I thought I was on the up and up.

The world just wasn’t ready for my genius yet, but eventually I would wear them down. Eventually the world would understand me. I was just too good, too passionate, too great. LISTEN WORLD! NO ONE UNDERSTANDS ME.

This is the point at which I pause and say how grateful I am that there was really no such thing as self–publishing in 1996. Though I did post my work onto the AOL forums, which only served to further stroke my self–confidence, because even on AOL everyone said I was great, and AOL was, like, THE WORLD. I wrote solid sentences. What more did people want from me?

I had yet to smack my head first into an actual professional writer.

My first college–level writing workshop was no better. My instructor’s claim to fame, the thing that made her qualified to teach the class, was that she once had a poem published in a lit magazine. There were some folks in class who could indeed turn a phrase, but much of the class consisted of us doing “creative” writing assignments like, “I want you to pretend to brush your teeth angrily,” which was meant to teach us about why we shouldn’t rely so much on adverbs. It would take a long time for me to realize that nobody actually cared about whether or not you used adverbs as long as you were telling an interesting story.

This was also the first workshop where I heard people talk about getting MFA’s, and how that was pretty much the only path anyone could think of to make a living writing. If you wanted to make a living as a writer, you had to teach writing. Even my parents believed this. It sounded kind of bizarre. Like, the only way to make a living as a carpenter is to teach carpentry. Which makes you wonder, then, why anyone would choose to be a carpenter if no one employs them.

I didn’t hear anyone ask who was writing all the copy for brochures and websites and commercials and how exactly one got into writing professionally that way, or discuss how to write a popcorn bestseller instead of eating an MFA.

We talked a lot about words and feelings and individual sentences in that class, but not a lot of talk about what made a good story, or how to construct it. Writing was about creativity, folks said, but nobody in class could tell me how to write a story that somebody would pay for. Not even the teacher. “Just be more prosaic and creative” is like saying, “Just get the car working by fixing the engine.”

Weary from endless let’s–talk–about–our–feelings workshops, I hit a bit of luck. It turned out that science fiction writer David Marusek was teaching a genre class off campus—I’d read one of his stories in an anthology a few months before heading up to college in Fairbanks, Alaska. So the next quarter I took his class instead of the creative writing class, and finally got a taste of what I’d been looking for—a class taught by someone who had actually published more than one short story.

The first day of class David emptied his folder full of rejection slips onto the table. It was the first time I saw someone with more rejection slips than me. The workshop was my first hint at what a pro workshop might eventually look like. Not just people sitting around talking about words, but people talking about stories and how to sell them. The class was still mostly hobbyist writers, and I was still arrogantly sure of myself as being—if not the best—then surely in the top three of the class, and I preened and cruised my way through the class as I had done with all of the others. But the feedback here was far more about plot than feelings, and I started to learn that the way I’d been taught to talk about writing was missing a lot of what writing really was. It wasn’t all about sentences flowing together and being pretty. It was about figuring out what the hell the point was to what I was making.

It was figuring out the story—and why people kept reading.

I was learning to break down stories into parts, not sentences; into emotions, not pretty words.

“You should apply to the Clarion writing workshop,” David said to me at the wrap party at the end of the class, and I was like, I’ve already done that and that supposed boot camp for science fiction and fantasy writers said no so fuck them and he said, “You should apply again.”

It was going to Clarion West that finally lay bare exactly where I was in my writing career, and how much further I needed to go, and exactly what I was up against and what I’d failed to grasp in all those other workshops. Workshops and classes and degrees in writing weren’t actually teaching me how to write publishable material. They were teaching me how to write pretty sentences that made sense together. These are actually totally different things.

Weirdly enough, I was failing as a writer because everyone was telling me I was a great writer. No one ever said I was a great storyteller. I was not pulling readers along with a strong hook, an emotional core, interesting characters, and wrapping it all up with a satisfying moment of catharsis.

I just made sentences and used them to move people around in a made–up world.

I was not, in fact, the best writer in my Clarion West class. Not by a mile. This was good training for what would become my professional writing career—running and running and running and always feeling behind. I ran to catch up every week. There were people who were far better at plot, at humor, at character, at dialogue, at descriptions. I could hold my own with worldbuilding and character most days, but what writing a short story a week teaches you is how to find your blind spots. You find out what you’re leaning on and your classmates strip it away, and when they took out the cool worldbuilding bits and the interesting characters, most of my stories were just people sitting around drinking and talking about things. They weren’t… stories. They were just… writing.

I was not a great writer, let alone a great storyteller. I was not a magical genius. Clarion West was the first time I had to admit that it wasn’t that the markets didn’t understand me, or that editors were out to get me, or that the gatekeepers were keeping me out. It was simply that I wasn’t writing good enough stories, and I didn’t know anyone in the business who would publish the so–so stories just because they knew me. If you don’t have money or connections, you can’t just be good. You need to be great.

At twenty years old, the teen angst was behind me, and I realized I needed to sit down and get to work.

So, after Clarion, I didn’t invest in more writing workshops or ego–stroking sessions.

I got work.

I stopped being quite so angry about being misunderstood. Oh, I had moments where I’d get a rejection and yell, “You will regret the day you rejected me!” while alone in my kitchen, but instead of agonizing about how unfair the world was because some guy who wrote worse than I did was getting the sales, or the awards, I doubled down and concentrated on the work, and how to tell stories. And eventually I started selling stories, not writing.

There has been a lot of ink spilled about what the point of writing workshops and MFAs is, if they can’t actually teach people to write. Some people say it’s the fault of the teachers, who have no idea how to teach writing. Others say the students are all there for the wrong reasons, and are too stupid to be taught.

I was hungry to be taught, but not hungry for what many people wanted to teach me. Literary teachers often wrote me off as a fantasy writer hack and never took me seriously, which was probably best because they often didn’t know what story structure was either. Most of my fellow workshoppers concentrated on things like spelling mistakes and “confusing” sentences.

What I needed was something most workshops and MFA programs weren’t going to give me. I needed to understand why stories worked, and how to position the points of my narrative in such a way that they achieved some kind of emotional resonance. I needed to understand why we remembered and connected with some stories and not with others.

I’ve spent the last five years actively studying plot and structure, not just in novels and short fiction, but in film and television and games as well. It wasn’t writing that I needed to learn so much as storytelling. And that, perhaps, gets to the heart of the problem with so many approaches to writing. We try and teach writing like it’s pretty words and grammar. But we’re concentrating on the wrong things. No one cares how pretty your words are if you aren’t telling a good story.

We shouldn’t be teaching writing. We should be teaching storytelling—the art of compelling people to read from the first sentence to the last.

Now that I’m publishing stories for money more often than not, breaking stories down into their component parts more reliably to create the hook, the emotional journey, the catharsis, I find myself stuck at the front of the class sometimes, looking at all the people winning the awards, getting the big ticket deals, selling all the copies, getting all the movie deals. Sometimes I share astonished looks with my spouse about who sold how much, or who won what, or who had a million dollar deal.

Sometimes I feel like the kid standing at the front of the class, wondering why the fucking plagiarist is getting the same or more recognition than I am (and goodness knows there have been some very successful plagiarists). But most of the time I recognize that in order to get any sort of recognition anymore, I need to work harder. I need to tell better stories. And that’s not something I’m going to learn from a book, or an MFA, or a single workshop. For me, that’s a lifetime of dogged learning and shouting and not giving up. The work is the payoff. The work is the end goal.

And I’m still here. The plagiarist guy isn’t. He’s probably in the Hamptons, like I said.

I like to think this is better. I have better neighbors.

And we tell better stories.

Khurley Author Photo

Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, Empire Ascendant, and the God’s War Trilogy. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Hurley’s nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution.

5 Responses to “I Don’t Care About Your MFA: On Writing vs. Storytelling”

  1. mesmith

    As an aspiring fantasy writer, this was pretty inspirational for me.

    I’ve spent literal decades writing academic prose. Now, writing fantasy fiction, I find that in many ways, I am having to start from the beginning and break it all down. It’s a whole different set of literary muscles, but hearing about the struggles of others who have gotten through or past it: that really helps.

  2. arcana7

    “We try and teach writing like it’s pretty words and grammar. But we’re concentrating on the wrong things. No one cares how pretty your words are if you aren’t telling a good story.
    We shouldn’t be teaching writing. We should be teaching storytelling—”
    Couldn’t agree more. I worked with a writing coach one-on-one for a year on an original feature-length screenplay and found this out the hard way. At our last meeting (I had to stop seeing her because of money), she told me all I had to do to complete my screenplay was to, “pick an ending.” As if the other 90% of the story was now all of the sudden irrelevant? Sage advice. And mind you, she is one of the top screenwriting coaches at a very reputable independent NYC screenwriting school. That was two years ago. I’ve been breaking down stories on my own ever since. I recently completed writing my first short film, and though I sure don’t think it’s going to win me any awards, I can sleep at night knowing that the damn thing WORKED — and that it wasn’t by accident. Thanks for your article, very nice to read.

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    […] (Editor’s note: Kameron Hurley’s new novel Empire Ascendant, the second volume of her Worldbreaker Saga, was released on October 6 and is now available from all fine booksellers. For more of Kameron’s thoughts on writing, please check out her Uncanny Magazine essay “I Don’t Care About Your MFA: On Writing vs. Storytelling“) […]

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    […] Writing is about storytelling more than anything else. Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably have enough material to write about. […]

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