MFA CoverMFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book; John Rember; Dream of Things Press; Chicago, IL; 2013; $16.95, paperback, $4.99 e-book. Paperback available at and; e-book available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and most e-book sites.

As the title promises, Author John Rember does offer cogent reasons to write, though many of them are stated more implicitly than explicitly. On the other hand, Rember is too exuberant to focus the book on one issue: Besides reasons why to write, there are many tips on how. Every chapter concludes, in fact, with a numbered (and often tongue-in-cheek) list of writing tips. And there’s still more going on in the book: social commentary, autobiography, philosophy, and literary criticism. I’d have to say, in fact, that MFA in a Box gives roughly as much attention to each of those subjects as to writing. This is not your father’s—or older brother’s—writers manual.

It took me longer than it should’ve to understand that this book is written as creative non-fiction, rather than standard nonfiction. Rember spends little time on the nuts and bolts of writing, and suggests looking elsewhere for help with the fundamentals of writing. He’s interested in what to do with writing technique once you have it, how to use it to best effect. And he has no aversion to word-play, tale-spinning, whimsy, or digressions. For example, he moves from a discussion of Gilgamesh into a meditation on Marilyn Monroe and other glamorous women and on contemporary discomfort with femininity, particularly female sexuality, before returning to Gilgamesh.

It worked for me.

Also interesting is Rember’s retelling of “The Little Match Girl” as Raymond Carver could’ve written it. Which he then relates to the topic of The Writer As An Outsider.  Later, Rember analyzes The Book of Job and “Hansel and Gretel” and in convincing fashion relates both to the life and craft of a writer. And did I mention Rember is funny?  He is. Very. Reading this, I laughed out loud—quite a bit. His humor is dry, mordant, and merciless.

All that is excellent, but I won’t claim that this is easiest reading you may encounter. The prose is packed with concepts, allusions, opinions, and side-trips, all of which demand focus. First time through MFA in a Box, I read a chapter a day; the second time through went faster for me but still kept me on my toes. The book definitely merited a second reading, and soon enough I’ll go through it a third time.

For anyone who feels he or she has read enough about writing for a lifetime, this book would be worth trying. It ventures deeper than most and illuminates why and how one might want to write and the relationship between those two questions. All the social commentary, autobiography, asides, and anecdotes could be seen as distractions, I guess, but for me they were a good matrix for Rember’s discourse on writing—and icing on the cake.

The book was a treat.

The review above appeared originally in Windy City Reviews (

About kentmcdanielwrites

Writer and musician.

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