How to Become a Better Creative Writer at Any Point in Your Career

The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis is one of the finest in the country, with a renowned lineup of instructors, alums and students. During the summer, the University makes it possible for students at large to connect with the creative writing program by participating in the Summer Writers Institute (SWI), a two-week intensive writing program for working adults that offers workshops in a range of subjects. Students who attend range from beginners who haven’t extensively written before to published authors, all looking to sharpen their skills.

We interviewed two students, Tiffanie Brown and Amanda DeBord, who both took the creative writing course in micro-fiction taught by MFA program director David Schuman. Keep reading to learn more about this incredible writing opportunity.

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Banking Professional Tiffanie Brown 
Summer Writers Institute student Tiffanie Brown currently works as an assistant examiner with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in consumer compliance. Having recently moved to St. Louis from Florida, she was looking for a personal enrichment activity that would help her explore her passion for writing and connect her to the local community. Brown came across a pamphlet at an ALIVE Magazine launch party and took the class for the first time last year. She also plans to enroll in another SWI course this summer.

You took David Schuman’s micro-fiction course last year. What was that experience like?
I thought it was great. I’ve never taken a class like that before. We spent a lot of time reading very short stories—some were just a few lines long or a paragraph. We’d discuss them and then try to mimic the writing style. For another assignment, he brought in a few old yearbooks and we each picked someone to write about. The girl I chose to write about looked kind of disturbed; she was in the grass with her jacket tossed to the side, so I wrote about her coming home and learning that her mother was having an affair.

During class we critiqued each other’s work out loud. You could volunteer to read something and get everyone’s opinions and thoughts, which was really helpful. And you come away with a community of people who will look at your work. My professor was wonderful, and we got to interact with the other professors as well. In the micro-fiction course, you participate in different seminars together and interact with other students and professors. They were all knowledgeable and kind—the students, too. And it’s only two weeks, so you don’t get burnt out.

As a two-week intensive course, this is a big commitment, especially for students like you who work full-time, and then voluntarily attend this class after work for a few hours. What made you decide to take the class?
I’m actually not from St. Louis—I’m originally from Michigan, and I went to school in Florida. The company where I currently work now, The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, was recruiting at my school, and I decided to go for it. I had never even been to St. Louis before. I wanted to find something enriching to do in my spare time, especially because I don’t know very many people here. It helped me get outside my comfort zone, meet new people and have a new experience. It sounds long when you say it out loud—that you’re going from work to class for three hours. But it went so fast.

What inspires you to write?
I think the experiences that I have in life inspire my writing. Really just my everyday life experiences, or things I write about that I find funny. At the end of our micro-fiction class, I wrote a piece based on a Yelp review. I also love art, so sometimes I look at a piece of art and think about what may have inspired the work. The whole process has helped me to understand myself a lot better. Oftentimes I’ll just freely write my thoughts, and this class helped me to understand my thought process and how I deal with things. I can see where I’m growing. I normally gravitate towards fiction, but I also like to write stories about my own past and change the outcome to something different.

What would you say to someone who is interested in taking the class, but not 100-percent sure?
Definitely go for it. It’s a short-term commitment and very fulfilling.

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Photo courtesy of University College at Washington University in St. Louis.

Professional Editor Amanda DeBord 
Ever since she was a teenager, St. Louisan Amanda DeBord has always written—so it made sense that she pursued a creative writing major at Taylor University in Indiana, and later started her own editing business, called River Run Editing. Personal and professional writing have been a part of her life ever since, and last year she took David Schuman’s micro-fiction class at WashU’s Summer Writer’s Institute (SWI), which will also be offered this summer. DeBord also plans to take another class at SWI this year as well.

Tell me about your editing business, and how that grew over the years. 
I’ve been editing for about 10 years now. A long time ago, I submitted a story to a horror magazine I loved, which they rejected. As I continued reading the magazine, I saw that there were typos everywhere in the stories, poor grammar and incorrect spelling. I reached out to them and said, “I love your magazine, but you really need an editor.” Then they asked if I wanted to do it. The pay was minimal, but it kind of started from there. Friends who’d written books needed editors, and professors I worked with needed someone to edit pieces they’d submit to academic journals. Eventually I set it up as a business, and it’s been steadily growing ever since.

You also took David Schuman’s micro-fiction writing class last summer. What was that experience like?
It was fantastic. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve been working so much on editing that my writing had fallen by the wayside a bit. But I’m motivated by assignments and deadlines, so I felt I really needed a writing class. A lot of the pieces we read in class were 200 to 500 words, and we also did three-minute writing assignments. It was really, really fun. David Schuman was able to really break things down, like the actual process of how to create a plot and how to frame the timeline of your story in ways that I’d never been taught. I learned so much in that class. Everyone in the class was really fun as well, and the range of students was amazing. We had one student who’d never written fiction before and another who already had a creative writing MFA.

Sharing your work requires a certain amount of vulnerability. How did that manifest in this classroom environment?
It is hard to share your work, and it also creates a level of intimacy in the class that you don’t find anywhere else. The class I took was a really honest class, though at first I was afraid everyone was going to be too nice. But even the people who didn’t have a lot of experience were really honest in critiques, which really helps you figure out how to make your work better. We had a really collaborative environment, and it was so fun to see in such a short period of time the stuff that people came up with.

Do you think you emerged from the class a better writer? 
I do, even in just that short amount of time. In the past I’ve felt like my writing has grown, but I haven’t always been able to identify how to get from where I am to the that higher level of writing where I really want to be. But this class really helped me refine what I was doing and figure out how to improve the larger elements of my work.

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