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MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book Paperback – January 1, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Drawing on Gilgamesh, the Book of Job, the myth of Orpheus, his own life, and the lives of Ezra Pound and Jack Henry Abbott, with a little James Hillman thrown in, Rember (Traplines) argues that the only reason to write is to tell the truth about the soul-less, life-denying, nature-destroying culture we inhabit. This news simultaneously taps into a writer's deepest fantasy-I'm the one, the truth teller-and nightmare-writing really does require a descent into hell, and makes the writer superhuman, able to bear truths the rest of society can't. There must be a lot of kryptonite about, then, because Rember's effort often reads like a cross between self-help manual (face the darkness!) and a teacher's cri de coeur (go deeper; don't make me read another puerile story!). It's hard to argue with some of his points-yes, language lies, especially when writers mistake prettifying for deepening. But when the insights have to be plucked from a mash-up of overstatements, self-indulgent personal narratives, and gnomic and risible rules like "Dream as a God, write as a mortal," most writers and would-be-writers will opt to find another box.
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"Rember's MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book is more than an advice book with a catchy title. What makes it different than the many, many books about writing on the market today is the way Rember engages his readers in some of the issues every writer faces--writing about place, about family, about grief--not as problems to be overcome but as issues to be understood." --Jeff Baker, Book Editor, The (Portland) Oregonian, January 3, 2011

"Witty, audacious, and wise, John Rember's MFA in a Box is a unique and valuable book that addresses the subject--and the life experience--of Creative Writing from both a practical perspective and in a manner so highly personable you'll read it like a memoir--and want to meet the author. Rember has the storyteller's magic. You'll be enthralled. And walk away a more astute and vibrant writer." --Robin Metz, author of Unbidden Angel, winner of the Rainer Maria Rilke International Poetry Award, and Director of the Program in Creative Writing at Knox College, January 1, 2011

"John Rember's MFA in a Box should be on every writer's bookshelf, right next to On Writing by Stephen King and other great books on the art and craft of creative writing." -- Randy Richardson, President, Chicago Writers Association -- (, January 2011

Nautilus Book Awards, Silver Winner - Writing/Creative Process Category --Nautilus Book Awards, May 14, 2011

Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Short List, and 1st Runner Up - Reference Category --Eric Hoffer Award, May 12, 2011

Midwest Book Awards, Finalist - Reference Category --Midwest Independent Publishers Association, May 12, 2011

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Dream of Things (January 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 098257942X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0982579428
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,199,945 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Rember 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 book MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book (Dream of Things: 2011) was recognized by the Nautilus Awards, Hoffer Awards and Midwest Book Awards as one of the best new books on creative writing. His memoir Traplines: Coming Home to Sawtooth Valley (Vintage: 2004) was named Idaho Book of the Year by the Idaho Library Association. He is also author of Cheerleaders from Gomorrah: Tales from the Lycra Archipelago (Confluence: 1994), and Coyote in the Mountains (Limberlost: 1989). His most recent book is Sudden Death, Over Time: Stories (Wordcraft of Oregon: 2012).

John 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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Sharon Harrigan on February 8, 2011
Format: Paperback
MFA in a Box is a "why to write" not a "how to write" craft book. If you are looking for instruction on technique, such as point of view, pacing, and plot structure, see Julie Checkoway's terrific Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. But if you are ready to plunge into the depths of your writer's soul and uncover the secrets that you might be holding back, then MFA in a Box could change the whole way you think about the process of writing.

The book unfolds through stories--from the author's life, books, and world events--to illustrate hard-to-understand truths. The chapter "Writing Violence," for example, uses the story about Jack Henry Abbot and his prison memoir and relationship to Norman Mailer to show a number of ideas, such as the need for irony in writing. Irony is the "struggle against the absurdity of having a god's mind in an animal's body," and without that struggle stories die. Irony is "the difference between the way things are and the way things are supposed to be."

This chapter was especially relevant to my writing, because I see the need for more violence in my plots, not necessarily physical or actual but a recognition that the world is a violent place, an insistence on not ignoring the Cold War artifact that is the world we live in (which Rember also calls "writing in the Now.")

"Violence" can mean conflict pushed to its boiling point. Rember says, "When I advise new writers, I encounter people who find it difficult to resolve the conflict in their stories. . . If the conflict has to be resolved by violence, the writer often as not leaves the scene. . . nobody's life--least of all the writer's--is transformed.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Theresa J. Elders on May 14, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Late last night I settled into bed and finally opened "MFA in a Box" on my Kindle. I finished the introduction and the first two chapters. Though I read past midnight, I hated to switch off my e-reader and turn out the light. I've not been so entertained or so engaged about the why of writing since I'd read Carolyn See's "Making a Literary Life."
For starters, John Rember provides new perspectives on Anderson's Little Match Girl and the misogyny of Bob Dylan and Joyce Carol Oates. He introduces the concept of a fifth primary taste sensation, umami, the savory taste of protein, separate from the basic four we've always known (salty, sweet, sour and bitter). Then he slips in a phrase that's haunted me for the past six years after the successive deaths of my first husband, a longtime boyfriend and a second husband: that some suspect that "everyone who ever loved you is dead." OMG,IMHO, he nails it!
With all this to think about, I wondered if I'd ever get to sleep. But I slipped off into a troubled dream where The Little Match Girl listens to Dylan rasping out "Positively 4th Street" as she freezes to death finger by finger, toe by toe. Rember says writers need to pay attention to irony and violence. I agree.
This book is so allusive, so sly, and so on point on both how and why we incorporate our every experience into what we write. I've flipped ahead to the index to discover with delight that Leave it To Beaver nestles against Leaves of Grass, and Shakespeare and Anne Nicole Smith can be found within hugging range.
I'll read chapters three and four tonight and anticipate more wondrously complicated dreams. And when I devote tomorrow to writing an essay about marriage, I'll remember to include the irony and violence.MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By R. Peake on May 29, 2011
Format: Paperback
John Rember is unafraid to stare down life's big questions, but does so always with a twinkle in the eye. Like the fool in King Lear's court, he will rap you on the noggin with a truth so sweet it hurts. If you don't close his book somehow transformed, you may well be un-transformable.

Rember's "why to write" book is a memoir of the creative heart and mind in conflict with itself, which is to say a universal struggle that any artist will recognize. More than this, he emerges triumphant over big issues-family, violence, bearing witness, estrangement, grief. Gilgamesh, "Hansel and Gretel," Greek mythology and Paris Hilton all figure in to his survey of literature and culture, teaching through the age-old workshop mantra of showing, rather than telling us, what good, deep writing is all about.

John demonstrates time and again what it means to write as a fully engaged human being, teaching along the way that deep writing is deep living, and profound fun.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Renee E. DAoust on July 4, 2011
Format: Paperback
John Rember's "MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book" is full of deep literary allusions, such as this one to "Gilgamesh": "Editors view apostrophe mistakes the way they might view a worm dropping out of the nose of a corpse, and as far as they're concerned, the corpse belongs to the writer whose flawed manuscript they're reading."

As we all know, becoming a writer involves becoming a reader. It's true whether your aims for writing are more immediate--get through English Composition 101--or more fantastical--write a novel that wins the National Book Award and Pulitzer in the same year.

For those writers and teachers searching for rejuvenation in their work and affirmation of it, this book is a sacred read. For the rest, Rember's book is a must-read. If you still know why you want to write after reading Rember's book, go for it: "get the butt in the chair."

If you don't want to write after reading his book, go outside and play and feel fine. There's no shame in discovering your dreams were misplaced.

As with Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer" (Harper Perennial, 2007), Rember's "MFA in a Box" sets out stories about living, reading, and writing: why we read, why we create, why we interpret, and why we project onto that blank page. Yet this is not a relentless drumbeat. Rather, Rember's voice is much like the authentic "ah-ha" that you wish you had experienced during your actual MFA and didn't.

Through explorations on family, place, grief, race, violence, travel, and love, "MFA in a Box" explores the inner sanctum of a writer's life. Why does one thing lead you to another? Why does metaphor weigh you down?
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