A Two-Year MFA in Writing Reading List in One Post

“So I would imagine you have to do a lot of reading in an MFA program,” I am sometimes asked. The answer is yes, and appropriately so: some believe the best way to learn to write is to read a lot, and to read critically. So what have I been reading the last two years while earning an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts? I’ve provided a partial list below.

The College Hall Chapel at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I'll receive my MFA in Writing on that stage in just a few weeks.

The College Hall Chapel at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’ll receive my MFA in Writing on that stage in just a few weeks.

Note that MFA programs vary in terms of reading requirements. I almost attended Bennington College’s program, which I believe includes a required reading list. There’s a lot to be said for reading a core canon. But one of the reasons I chose VCFA is the ability to craft a specialized reading list each semester with your instructor focused on your particular growth needs. In this program I’ve completed a draft of a travel memoir while working on personal essays and biographical writing; the reading list below reflects that.

The list is not fully comprehensive of what I read; I’ve left a few novels off the list, for example, because in my pursuit of a creative nonfiction specialization, they weren’t central to my learning. I’ve broken them into categories–memoir, travel/nature, essay, biography, and craft–but those are a bit arbitrary. The travel books largely could also fall under memoir, as well as some of the biographies, for example. But the list seemed too long to not break up.

While it is almost impossible to rank these books in terms of quality, I have marked a few of my favorites in boldface.

Feel free to use the comments to either ask me to provide more detail on one or more of these books, or to recommend books in these categories (or others) you recommend.

MEMOIR

  •  Caswell, Kurt. An Inside Passage. A series of personal essays not in chronological order that paint the picture of a wanderer connected to nature. My first semester VCFA advisor.
  • Didion, Joan. Blue Nights. A sequel of sorts to the memoir below that chronicles the author’s loss of her daughter.
  • Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. A master work about the loss of her husband, Gregory Dunne, that manages deep emotional reveals while maintaining a reserved, journalistic voice. Truly marvelous.
  • Feinstein, Sascha. Black Pearls: Improvisations on a Lost Year. A series of personal essays chronicling the death of his artist mother as he becomes an adult and embraces jazz. My fourth semester VCFA advisor.
  • Fowler, Connie May. When Katie Wakes: A Memoir. A chronicle of the author’s time in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. One of my workshop advisors at VCFA.
  • McCann, Richard. Mother of Sorrows. A series of personal essays about growing up and coming to terms with his homosexuality. A VCFA instructor who gives stunning lectures.
  • Silverman, Sue William. Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. A chilling memoir about her years-long sexual abuse by her diplomat father, told with a childhood voice. My third semester VCFA advisor.
  • Silverman, Sue William. Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction. A sequel to the memoir above, a memoir framed around her treatment as an adult of misplaced sexual behavior stemming from her childhood abuse. Both memoirs are moving; this one speaks to me a bit more from a craft perspective.
  • Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. The former Dear Sugar advice columnist for The Rumpus crafts a moving memoir of a young woman going to extremes to deal with the loss of a mother and the failure of a marriage.
  • Sutin, Lawrence. A Postcard Memoir. An innovative memoir that frames personal essays with postcards the author has collected over the years. My second semester VCFA advisor.
  • Wolff, Geoffrey. The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father. A memoir chronicling being raised by a scam artist.
  • Wolff, Tobias. This Boy’s Life: A Memoir. A stunning work by Geoffrey’s brother (above) that records his separate childhood with a mother who doesn’t always make the best life choices. This is my touchstone book for the program; his style and voice manages deep reveals while maintaining an observer perspective, and also contains many moments of dry humor.
College Hall from the outside. My, how I like Montpelier in the summertime.

College Hall from the outside. My, how I like Montpelier in the summer.

TRAVEL/NATURE

  • Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. Chronicling his winter as the caretaker of Arches National Park during its offseason. A phenomenal combination of personal connection to and learning from nature.
  • Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. One of the author’s many travel chronicles, containing interesting observations and dry humor.
  • Heat-Moon, William Least. Blue Highways: A Journey into America. A man whose life has taken a turn for the worse takes off on a drive around the country, encountering interesting individuals and growing as a result. An inspiration for my own road-trip memoir.
  • Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. A journalistic work documenting a misguided youth who died alone in an Alaska wilderness that contains some interesting reveals of the author’s life story.
  • Lawrence, D.H. D.H. Lawrence and Italy. A series of essays on the author’s travels in Italy that grab the reader with strong argumentation and brilliant description.
  • Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow LeopardThe author braves death exploring the Himalayas while wrestling with spirituality and his life choices as a husband and father.
  • Moore, Dinty W. The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still,  American Style. Exploring a personal reinvention through the exploration of Eastern wisdom, laced with the author’s signature humor.
  • O’Hanlon, Redmond. No Mercy: A Journey into the Heart of the Congo. A dramatic and insightful travel memoir chronicling a trip I would rather not attempt myself.
  • Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. A stunning pairing of motorcycle road trip with exploration of wisdom and insanity.
  • Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley in Search of America. An entertaining work that is really a vehicle for the aging author to shake his fist at changes in society. As I wrote on this blog recently, it has been found to have an element of “truthiness” in that some of the incidents chronicled did not in fact occur.

ESSAY

  • D’Agata, John, ed. The Next American Essay. Speaking of truthiness (above), D’Agata embraces emphasizing the ‘creative” in creative nonfiction to the point of fiction; not my cup of tea. This book compiles groundbreaking essays of recent authorship, some of which are  bit too experimental for my taste.
  • Epstein, Joseph. Essays in Biography. Liberals will need to put aside his at-times conservative bent and embrace his masterful approach to painting a portrait of a figure from history (sometimes his contemporaries) in sparkling prose.
  • Hurd, Barbara. Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling through the Dark. A series of essays that educate the reader both on spelunking and the author’s own exploration of her hopes and fears.
  • Lopate, Phillip, ed. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. The definitive collection of personal essays across centuries and continents. Montaigne essays dominate more than I might have liked due to the editor’s obsession with him, but there are brilliant essays in here that truly inspired my writing, by such authors as James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Lopate himself. I have cribbed much of his introduction for my instructional materials in my Loft Literary Center course, XXXXX.
  • Madden, Patrick. Quotidiana. A compelling collection of essays that provide moving personal insights combined with interesting cultural observations and doses of humor. One of my workshop advisors at VCFA.

BIOGRAPHY

CRAFT

Okay, I’m tired now just from compiling this list! No wonder I now find myself resisting picking up even a short work of literature to read…

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About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

24 Responses to “A Two-Year MFA in Writing Reading List in One Post”

  1. Geez Louise, Patrick, are your hands tired from typing, too? They should be. That is a HUGE list. Of course, it is two years, for writing, so it makes sense. I appreciate you breaking it down into catagories as I have found myself enjoying memoirs as of late, so I may have to pick up a few of your recommended reads.

    Congratulations on reaching the end of your educational journey (for now, who knows?)! I’m happy and even a little bit proud. When you are on the New York Times Best Seller list, I’ll be telling people “I knew you when” . . .🙂 (I already have done that for one writer, Chuck Pahlunick, so I’m sure I’ll do it for you too! 😉 )

  2. I should say if you haven’t read “Tuesdays With Morrie” (Mitch Album, I believe), and “The Lost Boy”, (I don’t remember the author but I can look him up), you may want to pick those memoirs up. Although I’m not a writer and don’t find myself dissecting the craft, I enjoyed both of these moving memoirs. Well, “enjoyed” might be the wrong word for “The Lost Boy”, it was painful, but certainly moving.

  3. Thanks, Patrick… I’ve just returned from the local library where I put holds on three of those books. “The Snow Leopard” I read years ago and have often thought about reading it again. “No Mercy: a journey into the heart of the Congo”… hmm… the intro to my WIP — which I’m writing this week — begins with a steamer journey up the Congo. In the style of Joseph Conrad, of course. I spent two years as a hydrologist working in the headwaters of the Congo and the Zambezi.

    • “No Mercy” is an interesting read that shifts quickly from humor to political insight to shock. Your WIP sounds fascinating; once again, I’m envious of the life you’ve led.

  4. Thank you so much for this list and the quick reviews too. I will put several of them on my to-read list🙂

  5. What a great resource! Thanks for sharing this, Patrick. I spotted a couple I now want to read.

    • I’m so glad, Jessica! FYI, I’ll be giving a lecture at my graduation residency titled “Imagining History: Writing Scenes You’ve Never Seen.” I break down some of the biographies above to highlight how the writers put readers “in the scene” for events from the past. I thought of you at times crafting it, because the lessons apply equally well to someone writing a historical novel. You put me in scene stunningly well; I still remember moving my way along that river.

      • What a great topic for a lecture, Patrick. Hope you’ll post some of the highlights after you present. Thanks so much for the kind words about my novel. It’s so encouraging to hear a reader say he felt like he was in a particular scene and remembers it long after turning the last page.

  6. Wow — great list. Can’t wait to read several and possibly revisit some old favorites. Thank you for taking the time to compile it!

  7. So interesting to see your list. I was in the writing fir kids/teen program at vcfa, so my list is very different. congrats on wrapping up your degree. (Do you have one more res?) I graduated in July 2006 and still miss it! (Even those dorms!)

    • Hello, fellow alum! Yes, I have a graduation residency in about a month, where I’ll do a lecture and reading and then we have the ceremony. I’ll confess that I won’t be staying in that dorm this time, but instead a half-block off campus in a group house. I suspect I’ll spend some evenings hanging out there with folks, however!

  8. Nice to see some titles I have already read on here… In Cold Blood is an amazing book; and Capote’s story about writing the book is equally fascinating!

    Plus, now I have a summer reading list! After I finish my last my last class for my Higher Ed Admin MEd, of course…

    Thanks!

    • I have told my wife on numerous occasions that a life ambition is to be able to write a biography in which the true-story storytelling is as stunning as Capote’s.

  9. Love this – thanks! I am always looking for reading lists…

  10. It’s a wonder you found any time to write with a reading list this extensive. Thank you for sharing. You had some great recommendations that I’ll be putting on my TBR list.

    Congratulations on finishing your program.

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  13. Great list! I’ve been wanting to read Capote’s In Cold Blood for a while now, and I will be taking an advanced creative non-fiction class this upcoming semester. I’ve also had a friend tell me that Foster Wallace was a champion of creative non-fiction, but I’ve never taken the time to devote to his writings.

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