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To MFA or not to MFA
That is the question
I am finally returning to writing after a decades-long period of paying off my student loans, getting married, and having kids. I left my path to a PhD in English Lit because I knew I didn't really want to pick things apart and have "a position", I wanted to write. I was much too afraid to apply to any sort of creative writing program back then, though. I've come to realize I love feedback and critique, I love craft talk, I love reading and nerding out sentence-by-sentence (is there a writer's group where we just slowly read a body of stories to each other over Zoom and blow up the comments with YASS?), and I desperately need a tighter, dedicated community of readers and writers. I know that I can find this in other places, but I crave more intensity and a faster pace, I think. I've tried to reach out to writing friends over the last year, and although I have a trusted handful of readers, I haven't found the weekly, smaller, dedicated "let's meet Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings to read and critique for hours" group of writers and readers I've been looking for just yet. Perhaps I'm just not asking loudly enough for that though!
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I did the Story Intensive with Sarah Selecky which was great, but right now my goal is to polish up some stories and poems to apply to a distance MFA program. I am a little scared that this will be a lot of expensive stress and deflate the small bit of hope and confidence I do have in my stories and poems. I'm afraid I'll go back into Hating On Everything Is Cool Academic Mode, when my default is truly Everything Is Awesome mode (yup, Lego Movie reference). Perhaps I am mature enough to not fall into trends. Maybe I can bring my default earnest enthusiasm to the table in an MFA? I thrive in super structured environments where I'm forced to sharpen my habits, my thinking, and my writing. I also like the idea of a credential, if I'm being honest, but that's probably a confidence problem. Thoughts on moving to a distance MFA when you have some momentum going, but need community and structure? Thoughts on finding that community in other ways?
Wondering About MFAs
Dear Wondering About MFAs,
To MFA or not to MFA, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous critique, or to take arms against a sea of—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, a practical note. I may be a writer, but I come from a very long line of accountants. Never go in debt, or spend money you cannot afford, on an MFA degree. (With the possible exception of teachers who know they will get a pay bump for having a Masters degree.) Otherwise, it’s a lot of money that you will not see back. Yes, it may qualify you to teach writing in an academic setting, but every year, academia sends thousands of newly-minted MFAs into the world, and there are not thousands of new teaching writing jobs.
(This, unfortunately, limits the MFA. I am told there are some American MFA programs that offer full funding, but overall, the cost of doing the degree privileges the MFA; there’s definitely a fair bit of elitism in terms of who has the resources of time and money to do one of these degrees, so there is a lot of excellent writing you will never see in a program like this, and it can make it seem like the only good writing is a specific kind of literary writing. It’s a good thing to keep in mind if you are doing one of these degrees.)
I want to be clear on my biases here. I have an MFA. I only applied to one school, and my lived experience of the MFA program is limited to one program. For me, it was a good experience. I learned a lot, met some great writers and writing teachers, both among the faculty and students, and expanded my writing community. I don’t think I’d be the writer I am today without it.
But I also know a number of writers whose MFA experiences are not as positive. Traumatic MFA experiences are a real thing.
My general feeling on MFA programs is that coming out of it as a net positive experience depends on three things. 1) Why you’re going into the program, 2) Who’s in the program with you, and 3) How clear your sense of yourself as a writer is.
Some writers go into an MFA program because they feel having an official credential is what will make them a writer. This is entirely untrue; everyone who enters an MFA program is already a writer, whether they believe it or not. But there is something to be said about being within a community of writers who take writing as seriously as you do. I remember thinking, huh, if everyone here is a real writer, and they are more or less like me, could it be that I am a real writer too? It helped me take myself more seriously as a writer.
You say you are looking for people to nerd out about craft with. The concentration of such people will definitely be higher within an MFA program, although people can have a wide variety of reasons for doing an MFA, which may be as simple as a desire for accountability and deadlines. But it will likely be easier to find people who want to talk craft. Whether or not you will find the intensity you are looking for is another question—this is possibly less true in the pandemic world, but distance MFA programs are more likely to attract people who are balancing their MFA with other considerations, such as work and family life. You will find people who love talking craft with you, but it may be hard to establish these discussions outside the workshop.
That brings me to my next point. Who will be in this MFA program with you? By this, I mean both students and teachers; I am a firm believer in that quote by Hemingway (terrible guy, great quotes) that “We are all apprentices in a craft that has no masters.”
Traditionally—although I believe this is changing somewhat at various programs—the MFA is taught via the Iowa model, which essentially means workshop after workshop were the writer sits silently and a dozen other writers critique their work. Some writing teachers do additional craft discussion and readings and exercises beyond this. Others don’t. Workshopping in this way can be overwhelming; there’s not necessarily any particular guidance given to how to give feedback, and most people’s default is to find faults in the story and expound on them in great length.
In an ideal world, we would choose our writing critique group to be people with whom we truly connect. In an MFA class, it’s more random. I’ve been fortunate to have some really excellent readers and writers in some of my workshops, but also, there have been some absolute duds. I was in my MFA program when Guy in Your MFA first started tweeting, and there were definitely a few people in my class who resembled this account.
My current writing nemesis is from my MFA.
This also goes for the teachers, incidentally. Perhaps your favourite writer teaches at an MFA program; perhaps they are a shitty teacher. This happens to people. I know of a much-admired writer whose depth of craft knowledge barely exceeds a coat of nail polish, and despite being friendly and charming, is a poor teacher who continually disappoints their students. It’s one thing to be disappointed by a writing teacher, but when that teacher is one of your writing heroes? It stings.
In addition, some of your fellow students may take their own hero-worship of various writing teachers to harmful places. Something about the school model coupled with having a writer you admire teaching you can lead some writers to write to get the best grade, instead of putting themselves on the page. Similarly, they might critique to what they believe will impress the teacher and not what the writing actually needs. I have heard stories of workshops that end up dominated by the teacher’s merry band of bullies and sycophants. This can create a very toxic environment that make some writers stop writing completely.
My advice would be to try to connect with the program, as much as possible, before committing to it. See if there is a Facebook group for the program that you can join or connect with. See if you know anyone who knows anyone who has been in that program. See if there are current students you can contact to ask questions. See if you can visit the campus and meet some of the writing teachers. It’s not a perfect vetting of the program, but it at least gives you a better sense of what you are getting into, and who you are getting into it with. Certainly, my own program had begun changing a lot, such that the program I applied to was not quite the program I graduated from.
Finally, more than a few of my past students have been ones who were recovering from their MFA trauma. An MFA can be a great place to get feedback and learn craft. It is a shitty place to discover who you are as a writer. The Iowa model inherently assumes you know how to parse the deluge of (mostly negative) feedback from the workshop into stuff that is useful to you and stuff that you can entirely ignore. But I think many writers go into the MFA program unsure of whether or not they have earned the right to call themselves a writer, and the workshop model can lead to a lot of paralyzing self-doubt.
Did I know who I was as a writer when I entered the MFA? No. But I’m thick-skinned, and very bad at staying quiet when there’s a point that I want to make. Also no Guy in My MFA could ever invalidate me more than my mother has already tried.
All this said, the Iowa model of workshopping has come under a lot of scrutiny and I suspect fewer and fewer programs are using this exclusively. But to my limited knowledge, it’s still very prevalent. Matthew Salesses’ book, Craft in the Real World, has an excellent breakdown of the problems of this model and more importantly, suggestions for other ways to host a workshop.
I don’t want to dissuade you. For me, the MFA was an overall positive experience. I have zero regrets about doing it. One of my MFA pals remains my go-to person for every little scrap of craft ideas, and we can get into long discussions over Messaging; it lights up my brain in the best way each time. My writing group consists of friends from my MFA program; all beautiful writers, all with different strengths in what they see and bring to a discussion. My search for a literary agent was greatly aided by my MFA, since many of my classmates were represented by people I wanted to get in touch with, and so I could ask them for referrals. My never-ending novel in progress ultimately came from my MFA thesis, the play I produced came from my MFA (and through a friend of an MFA friend is how I connected to the theatre company that produced it) and much of my published shorter work was written in the MFA program. Publication may not be everything, but the more success I have, the more opportunities I have to involve myself in the literary community, through giving readings, writing festivals and conferences, various groups, etc.
All this said, if you are sincere in your desire for a twice-weekly writing group that goes for hours on end, I would suggest that you also look into other ways for you to practice this intensity. Teaching has often been the place I go to have craft discussions, since in answering questions for writing students, I find myself thinking and talking about craft in new ways. You don’t have to have an MFA or a formal teaching position to do this either. You can offer to give others feedback, perhaps even for pay. Host your own writing workshops. Start your own newsletter or blog or podcast where you break down stories, discuss aspects of craft, or review books about writing craft and apply that knowledge. Who knows? Maybe you’ll create your own community of writing craft nerds.
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