Learning v. Education

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” -Einstein

During the last few years I’ve debated going to graduate school for poetry. Do I need a formal degree to get where I want to be as a poet? A look at price tags helped me decide quickly, at least for the time being. But shortly after putting the issue aside, I was presented with two literary opportunities that felt like the perfect interim education: copy writing at my content marketing firm and co-editing poetry for Streetlight Magazine. Maybe grad school could wait a few more years while I saved up…

What I imagine I'd be like in grad school.
What I imagine I’d be like in grad school.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about both poetry and prose writing. I’ve also taken up a new educational practice: asking writer friends with graduate degrees about the primary lessons they took away from their education, whether craft, industry, or experience-related. It’s great to hear the big, little, surprising, quirky things people mention, and it doesn’t cost a dime.

Here are two lists I’ll share, both from friends who also happen to be my co-workers (what a plus!) First is Hope, who received her MFA in short fiction from Pacific University this year. Aside from being a great writer at our firm, Hope is currently a guest blogger for Ploughshares.com. Here’s what she had to say:

“The journey toward my MFA was one of the best—and most expensive—trips I’ve taken. But it was totally worth it. A few things I learned along the way…”

1. I once asked a mentor how long before I’d learn to see my work for what it was vs. what I wanted to be. In other words, how can I revise faster? His response: “Stay patient. The not knowing is all part of the process.” [Jack Driscoll]

2. Never, ever, ever stop reading. It’s one of the best ways to learn about anything, really, but especially writing.

3. Mastering a craft—or even just getting good at it—is a life-long journey. Sometimes it requires saying no to fun things or getting up with the sun in order to write. But most importantly, it requires just doing it.

4. The writing process is not easy on control-freaks (ahem), so learn to let go, to listen and use the down time (where good thinking can happen!).

5. Don’t obsess about your work to the point that you have nothing left of a good life. It ain’t worth that.

 

Next up is Jodi, who went to Columbia’s journalism school and is an associate editor at our firm. Check out her great article on New York City’s speakeasys!

Top Things I Learned in J-School (in no particular order):

1. You can “hone” a skill, but you can’t “hone in” on something particular. You “home in” on it, as would a homing pigeon.

2. Dangling modifiers are the devil.

3. Often, the hardest part of writing is just getting started. (See: lede and nut graf)

4. Juggling several stories of differing formats and subjects on the same deadline is possible. It’ll make you feel a little nutty, but it’s possible.

5. When covering a beat neighborhood in the Bronx, always carry your electric stun gun.

6. Unfortunately for the shy ones among us, networking—whether with peers in your field or already established professionals—is, in fact, important.

 

I’m thinking I might start a list of my own––“Writing Lessons I Learned While Not in an MFA Program.” So far, I’ve got number one: “Take your education in whatever form it comes.”

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