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MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book

Updated on January 21, 2015

A Book Review and More

MFA in a Box by John Remember is possibly the best book I've read about writing and living the creative life in general, and I have a personal library full of such books. I wish I had read this 30 years ago while I was at Cornell College (Iowa) hoping to be a writer some day. This lens is about the book and includes supporting information.

Image by Markus Rödder on Flickr.

Why I Love MFA in a Box

  • The list of "Rules for Writers" at the end of each chapter that creatively outline the important points to remember.
  • How very readable it is.
  • How personal stories are interwoven with insights into what it means to live the life of a writer.
  • The author's sense of humor throughout, sometimes in unexpected places.
  • Seeing how the writer's life is truly mythic and even mystical.
  • Being a writer as seen through the lens of transpersonal psychology.


And invite her friends to tea

In these days where positive thinking and law of attraction are the buzzwords for getting what you want in life, MFA in a Box encourages you to courageously acknowledge and be a witness to violence and death. Maybe you aren't being shot at every day (although many people are), but there are other, infinitesimal acts of violence, such as when someone cuts in line in front of you to get their commuting-to-work latte. Death, of course, is around us all the time. Those pharmaceutical ads on TV are supposed to be promoting good health but all they make you think about is your possible untimely demise, for example.

MFA in a Box inspires you to be aware of the negativity around you and not fight it, but rather write about it. This is how you will get to the truth and the real stories that have the potential to heal or at the very least grab the reader's attention. It implies that if you try to sugar coat things as a writer and tell only the happiest stories you're no better than a heroin dealer offering that moment of euphoria only to crash later. It seems to me that we can't evolve this way.


And what to do about it

I can't tell you how many times I've told people in recent years that I feel like the Little Match Girl. After reading the second chapter of MFA in a Box I finally feel validated for feeling that way. My friends have thought I've just been feeling sorry for myself - well, maybe I have been - but now I see it as part of the archetypal framework in which all creative people live. I wanted to cheer in the middle of the restaurant where I was reading this chapter.


Healing via story

A recurring theme in MFA in a Box is how the writer has to be willing to dive deep and go into places where few people are willing to go. And not just travel to the depths of the unconscious but also take a good strong flashlight and something to take notes with. Not to mention be willing to open the door so some of that can come up to the surface and start wandering around in "real life".

That's exactly what a shaman does, and I know because I've studied and lived it for the last twenty years. How utterly amazing it was for me to have this tied in with being a writer as that was what I started out to do when I was a little girl and ended up being more of a shaman. I guess I never really got away from my chosen path after all.

When I was fourteen I wrote a story that did just that. I created a character that was really me as a messenger between Heaven and Hades, basically. I spent a lot of time in Hades. I have since lost the manuscript but I suspected I was acting as a shaman even then. This is the first time I've had it confirmed in such a clear way.


Words are the artist's medium

I am also a visual artist. If you look at my other lenses you'll find my art work scattered throughout. I knew that I thought in pictures and then made words from them, but this is the first time anyone has impressed upon me how important it is that writers need to start with an image and go from there. This is also another very strong shamanic idea, but for me to explain how would take another lens entirely. MFA in a Box says that if you don't have an image, you don't have a story.

Book Chapters

  • Writing Violence
  • The Writer as Outsider
  • Writing Shadows
  • Writing Family
  • Writing Place
  • The Writer as Witness
  • Writing Image
  • Writing Depth
  • Writing Mom
  • Writing Grief
  • Epilogue: Writing Travel

John Rember - MFA in a Box
John Rember - MFA in a Box

About John Remember

John Remember is a fourth-generation Idahoan. Recurring themes in his writing include the meaning of place, the impact of tourism on the West, and the weirdness of everyday life.

His books include the memoir Traplines: Coming Home to Sawtooth Valley (Vintage: 2004), and two collections of short stories, Cheerleaders from Gomorrah: Tales from the Lycra Archipelago (Confluence: 1994) and Coyote in the Mountains (Limberlost: 1989). He has also published numerous articles and columns in magazines and newspapers, including Travel & Leisure, Wildlife Conservation, and The Huffington Post. He has been a professor of writing for many years, most recently as a core faculty member of the Pacific University MFA program (Forest Grove, Oregon). He is Writer at Large at The College of Idaho.

John lives in the Sawtooth Valley of central Idaho.

Less is More

Edit Edit Edit

How I Found MFA in a Box

Out of the blue one daydream of Things, the publishers, e-mailed me an inquiry asking if I'd review it. I guess I didn't read the title very carefully because I thought it was going to be a more obvious how-to type of book. A year ago I had an idea about creating my own MFA and creating a curriculum for myself. I wouldn't have a piece of paper at the end but I would have the knowledge without paying the huge tuitions. I hoped that this book would be similar to my idea.

When I started reading it I thought it was a little self indulgent. I live not far from the home of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and I know plenty of pretentious writers. My creative writing teacher at Cornell College was poet laureate of Iowa a few years ago, a couple decades after he effectively killed my writing career before it even got started. So I really thought this was going to be a waste of my time when I first opened it.

But I'd said I would review this book, so I kept reading. After about ten pages in I felt like I'd found a long lost mentor. Finally, somebody who understood me, inside and out! Not just as a writer but my whole raison d'etre. John Remember weaves together disparate threads of my life story while telling his own.

It IS a how-to book, but it's not in your typical textbook format. I would, however, make this a textbook for any writing class I taught.

The irony now is that I'd love to enroll in the MFA program where he teaches. Never mind this doing-it-on-my-own stuff.

Want to Hone Your Writing Skills? - Higher Education Opportunities

These are the two schools that John Remember is affiliated with.

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    • AceofHearts profile image

      AceofHearts 6 years ago

      I write and I create, then I write about what I create. Thanks again. I have so enjoyed my visit with you today.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Congrats. I would like to read something on this topic.

    • rachsue lm profile image

      rachsue lm 7 years ago

      COngrats on being featured in the book. Sounds like it will be a great read!!