The DIY MFA in Creative Writing

This summer, I’ll be quitting my full-time job to devote more time to writing. This renewed focus has me thinking about MFA programs, and I’ve been trolling creative writing web sites in my spare time, fantasizing about the application process. But with no programs here in Dallas, and only a few options for the low-residency MFA, the residency requirements (and costs) associated with most programs just aren’t practical for me.

So I’ve resolved to complete a “DIY MFA in Creative Writing,” utilizing free (or near-free) resources, including: the local library, local Dallas-Ft. Worth writing critique groups, a small network of alpha and beta readers, selective use of freelance editors, and the web. I’ll be trying to complete the first draft of my novel over the course of two years, taking occasional breaks to finish a collection of short stories (6 or 7 of which are complete).

The reading list for this stay-at-home-dad’s MFA is listed below, and reflects my tastes more than anything else. These are the stories I enjoy reading, and will hopefully influence the novel I eventually produce. I’ve read a few of these already, but most will be new. I’ve also sprinkled in some “just for fun” books such as Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”.

And so here, in no particular order, is my reading list for the next two years. I’ll get started in early June, and will update you infrequently on my progress and thoughts about each novel:

  1. Rabbit, Run (John Updike)
  2. The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe)
  3. Underworld (Don DeLillo)
  4. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard)
  5. 2666 (Roberto BolaƱo)
  6. Oryx & Crake (Margaret Atwood)
  7. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski)
  8. Jesus’ Son (Denis Johnson)
  9. Suttree (Cormac McCarthy)
  10. The Brothers K (David James Duncan)
  11. Collected Stories (Raymond Carver)
  12. American Tabloid (James Ellroy)
  13. The Cold Six Thousand (James Ellroy)
  14. Matterhorn (Karl Marlantes)
  15. Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
  16. Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry)
  17. Drop City (TC Boyle)
  18. The Sweet Hereafter (Russell Banks)
  19. Middlemarch (George Eliot)
  20. Libra (Don DeLillo)
  21. Stories (TC Boyle)
  22. The Stories of John Cheever (John Cheever)
  23. Collected Stories (Amy Hempel)
  24. The Sportswriter (Richard Ford)
  25. Independence Day (Richard Ford)
  26. The Intuitionist (Colson Whitehead)
  27. American Pastoral (Philip Roth)
  28. Shadow Country (Peter Matthiessen)
  29. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
  30. Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)
  31. Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
  32. Disgrace (JM Coetzee)
  33. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
  34. Tree of Smoke (Denis Johnson)
  35. Chronic City (Jonathan Lethem)
  36. The Unconsoled (Kazuo Ishiguro)
  37. The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles)
  38. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Michael Chabon)
  39. The Art of Racing in The Rain (Garth Stein)
  40. Await Your Reply (Dan Chaon)
  41. Geronimo Rex (Barry Hannah)
  42. Airships (Barry Hannah)
  43. Best American Short Stories 2005 (edited by Michael Chabon)
  44. Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut)
  45. The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
  46. Empire Falls (Richard Russo)
  47. Escapes (Joy Williams)
  48. The Complete Stories (Flannery O’Connor)
  49. Too Much Happiness (Alice Munro)
  50. Our Story Begins (Tobias Wolff)
  51. The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery)
  52. Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon)

UPDATE: Eventually I completed this list and this novel. It was so fun I put together another reading list for the next novel.

39 comments on “The DIY MFA in Creative Writing

  1. What a fabulous idea. This may be the solution for me as well – a few years off. I am starting to think that being well-read is the best secret amunition any writer can have. I haven’t read most of these. I love Cheever and O’Connor and Carver, so those I recognize, but I’m impressed with the variety and depth of your “course.” Good luck and I look forward to the infrequent updates!

  2. Just stumbled on your blog and I’m a big fan of the DIY MFA (even though I just graduated from a standard MFA in May).

    In fact, I’m running a month-long DIY MFA on my blog through September. Talk about coincidence! If you’d like company on your journey, stop on by:

    All the best with your DIY MFA and happy writing!

  3. I am so on board with this idea, it isn’t even funny.

  4. Hi, David. I just stumbled upon your blog while I was searching for some kind of creative writing program or even just some classes in Dallas. I was surprised to see such a lack of options. I appreciate your thoughts and suggestions on here. It’s hard to stay focused and motivated to keep writing while also being a full-time parent (I definitely get this). Hope you keep us up to date on how your DIY MFA is going. Thanks.

  5. Katie you might also consider signing up for one of the classes at The Writer’s Garrett. It’s a local writing program that has a community service aspect and is worth a close look. Their web site is at:

  6. Great idea [and great follow-through too!] Sounds like it would make a great book too.

    I did something similar after moving overseas [good news: able to quit my job, bad news: zero English-language writing community]. I kept seeing other writers’ publishing credits with “MFA here” and MFA there”. In the end I think the DIY approach worked well, supplemented by stays at writer’s colonies.

  7. Very great post. I simply stumbled upon your blog
    and wanted to say that I have really loved surfing around your weblog posts.

    After all I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I am hoping you write once more soon!

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