The MFA Independent Study
by Gayle Drakes
Are you in the second or third year of your MFA and looking for ways to fill out your credits? Independent Study offers a great opportunity to enhance your learning experience and progress in the MFA program.
What is Independent Study? It is coursework that you design in collaboration with your student adviser. You choose a topic of interest to you and work out a plan or proposal of reading and writing assignments that you will complete over 8 or 16 weeks. You gain 1 credit for each week of study so an Independent Study course will give you an additional eight or sixteen credits.
The study topic is entirely your choice. Perhaps there’s an aspect of writing where you want to improve your understanding, such as tone or plot development? Or maybe you’ve always been interested in the mythology of the aboriginal cultures of Australia? Or you want to understand chess openings better. You can design a course of study for yourself on any topic and get the credits for completing it. It's flexible, fun, and a great way of focusing your mind and time on a specific subject. On completion, you will come away with a sense of accomplishment and greater knowledge of a subject you like, and if your subject suits, your course will be added to the WVU curriculum.
You can find information about the Independent Study by contacting your student adviser.
But don't just take my word for it. Below WVU students, Shanna and GaryJ, share their experiences and how they have benefited from completing an Independent Study.
What was your study topic? Tell us about the "knowledge, perspective and goals" of your Independent Study (IS) and how you first became interested in this topic.
Drawn to creative non-fiction, yet intimidated by it at the same time, I took the WVU-MFA flash nonfiction series and the personal essay classes a while back. So, I had dipped my toes in the essay sea and splashed around in the safe zone near the shore but hadn’t tried going farther or diving much deeper. I decided to face my fears and spend two months writing two or three short personal essays a week. The weekly self-assignments were based on the texts used in the personal essay courses, which had been left unfinished because the classes didn’t get us through the entire book.
I chose to analyze different styles of dialogue in fiction. My goal was to better understand the use of dialogue itself and the mechanics behind crafting dialogue that people remember later. The truth is, and I might have guessed this, that dialogue is the icing on the carefully crafted multilayer cake of narrative, and that it, like any complex endeavor, either everything works, or nothing does.
To move from an abstract goal of "learning how to write better dialogue" to a more concrete curriculum, I started with a few didactic books on the subject. These served as primers and under the direction of my preceptor, Karen Barr, I developed a rubric to analyze the different authors I later selected. Then after coming up with that game plan, I sat down and did some research into novels and authors that had excellent dialogue (maybe). My list was eclectic and ranged from authors like Steinbeck to Jose Saramago, who ended up being my favorite. I should add that my curriculum included work on screenplay dialogue, and I would sometimes compare screenplays to the original novels.
In terms of my goal, it was pretty ambitious. I wanted (and I still want) to write dialogue that people remember after they put my work down. I want what my characters say to stick in the reader's head, for the reader to plagiarize my characters when they want to sound cool or convincing.
So far I have not achieved this goal, but I understand why characters speak, that their speech is a kind of action, and that these actions are unique to their character, both their true character and the more inchoate idea of characterization, or how the characters view themselves.
Another powerful idea that I uncovered for my own writing was the idea that no dialogue would ever feel real if the characters said what they really meant. Now this might sound cynical, but I don't mean that no one is genuine. I mean that people speak in subtext, without even meaning to, without realizing it most of the time. And more importantly, when we read dialogue that doesn't imitate natural subtext, it rings false.
What was the most challenging aspect of working on the IS?
There were a few exercises from the book that were very difficult for me. I had no inspiration for writing a gastronomic or humorous essay or creating an essay in response to one exercise that required a weird self-reflection that I didn’t understand. But the power of deadline worked its magic, I managed to draft essays in response to each of these exercises. Not that they were necessarily good essays, but I fulfilled the goal and completed the assignment for those uninspired weeks.
The most challenging part was committing to the idea that I was going to do this project. It sounds stupid and silly but taking the step of committing and risking failure was the most challenging part. I also have a day job, so the grind of individual work over the sixteen weeks proved taxing. In a normal class, you interact with other students and feel an obligation to keep up. On your own, you still have your preceptor, but really, you're alone. You have to motivate yourself. This is it.
Another difficulty I felt was navigating the freedom of setting up my own curriculum. It's hard to decide what will be best for your own writing. Thoughts like, is this the best use of my time? And am I wasting my time? These recurred over and over. In the end, I think you just have to realize that wasting hours sometimes saves you from wasting years. You have to explore the subject and find out what you need to know to get better.
Writing is such an individualistic activity, and so broad, it's easy to feel lost, or like you don't matter, or like you'll never write anything that matters, or that anyone will want to read. But these are lies. Writing is its own reward and studying the craft of writing always improves everything you will ever write in the future. It's tremendously valuable and efficacious, even when it feels like you're just coloring some kid's menu at Denny's. No offense if you like Denny's or coloring their kid's menu, which is a huge existential waste of time and probably leads to obesity, heart attack, stroke, and tooth decays. Just kidding, I love Denny's. OK, next question.
3. How has the IS improved your writing and/or your knowledge?
I wanted to hone my craft and tone my essay writing muscles, hoping to eventually work on a couple of personal projects. I think I accomplished this goal. It gave me the confidence to write eight more essays that are related to a personal project that I’ve envisioned for a while.
Like I alluded to earlier, I know why my characters are supposed to speak now. Also, I can use dialogue to do more of the hard work of exposition and character developments. That alone does wonders for your writing. How many times do we struggle to just tell the reader everything that is going on in our little narratives and this is a major tool to do that in a way that moves the story forward and feels authentic.
Also, I indulge in these little short screenplay contests, and the work I did helped a lot in that area. In a movie, visuals and dialogue are central to storytelling. We can't see into anyone's head the way we can in written narrative, so you must rely on what the characters say and the way they (you) choose to say it.
Also, I think I read a lot more into what people say in real life too. Like when someone says, I have COVID and I have a cough, I'm like, I think you mean you want to hang out. It's helping in every part of my life.
4. What has been the outcome/success of your IS?
I finished the personal essay book! The Independent Study got me to sit down every week and do the kind of writing that I’d long wanted to do, but never did. It got me to jump into the waters of the essay sea despite all kinds of excuses about it being too cold, big waves, and potential sharks. And I sometimes got some big mouthfuls of saltwater or had to pull my feet out of a tangle of seaweed, but I did it! It exercised my essaying skills.
It also resulted in a body of first drafts that I might go back to and see about revising and publishing in some form. So, I did make it back to shore and flopped on the beach to bask in the sunshine of completion.
My project has culminated in creating a WVU course on the subject. And I've learned that teaching is a great way to procrastinate writing. I mean, it's right up there with alphabetizing your spices and surfing Reddit. If I hadn't started the course I'd be forced to sit and finish all the short stories I'm pretending to write. Nobody wants that.
It's very satisfying to learn something you think is the cat's pajamas and then teach that to someone who is equally blown away by its simplicity and power. Now, it's not always like that, and sometimes, online, it's hard to convey a complicated subject, then follow up and teach what the students are missing. That's tough.
In my day job, I'm an ER doc and I teach medical students (Please never ever get sick). When they don't get something important, I have to stop and slow down and really get them through it. At WVU, I feel like my students are even more upset and frustrated when they don't get a concept the first time. I want to just comfort them and tell them it's not life and death and they will still write great stories even if they misunderstand some esoteric point about free indirect discourse or subtext and the subconscious mind. I mean, relax, most of the wonderful things people write are to a certain extent unintentional. You put it on the page, but it has its own life so just get out of the way, right?
5. Do you have any advice or a message for other WVU members about the IS program?
Consider how to challenge yourself with measurable, realistic goals for the entire IS and each week of the IS. You want to push yourself, but not set goals that aren’t doable. Also, avoid creating weekly assignments that are too nebulous to help you work your way through your IS. Having clear weekly assignments makes it easy to keep it going on your own. Also, set a weekly deadline and promise yourself that you will meet it no matter what. It’s a contract with yourself and you’ll owe yourself the effort to make it happen each week.
Hey, look at me, yes you. Someone once said that the difference between writers and regular people is that writers are regular people, but their fingers itch. Do your fingers itch? Yeah, they're pretty red, looks itchy, maybe a little cortisone. Anyway, listen, as I said earlier, if you allow yourself to waste a few hours, you could save yourself from wasting years.
So, pick a topic, pick a preceptor, and do the work of learning something new and interesting. can't promise it will make your readers imitate your characters or that you'll be a famous author who got their start in internet writing classes, but I will promise this, and you can take this to the bank: you will experience joy. You will discover something about the subject you love that surprises you, that delights you, and then, you can share it with someone else.