The MFA retrospective: was it worth it?

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I graduated from my MFA program, after six semesters (and four years) of writing and workshopping and stroke recovery and angst and fun times. It was a largely anticlimactic event, given that I graduated 2 years after the class I entered with, and given that I graduated in the winter and not the spring. My graduation was marked with just a form letter. And no more classes to attend.

But I don’t mind anticlimactic at all.

I’ve spent the last couple of months adjusting to my new job (a non-writing, non-academic job if you must ask) and re-entering the whole atmosphere, post-MFA. Still, I’ve spent some time reflecting on my MFA program, urged on by several of you anxious to hear my thoughts on the experience.

I’ve tried several times to write this post, trying to think of ways to elegantly summarize my experience, but I just couldn’t find a pat, all-encompassing review. So I’m just going to type down my notes, haphazardly. If you have questions, post them here, and maybe we can all share and help each other out.

The rest of the post follows after the jump….

Would I do it again? Most definitely.

Is it crucial to being a creative writer? No.

No one, I think, can teach you how to write, but an MFA in creative writing can save you some time. I think you can do in a couple years what it might take you several years to discover and learn without an MFA. It is a potentially expensive foray, especially if you don’t get any funding or scholarship. And even with a full scholarship, you’re sacrificing at least two years of earning capacity. And it’s no sure thing–the writing is up to you.

Additionally, if you’re looking to make a career change, or want to teach at the community college level, an MFA can be a valuable investment.

I myself applied to MFA programs because I got to the point where I was going to scream if I didn’t give my writing a fulltime chance. I hated my job, I was stressed out of my mind, I’d just gotten a short story published, and the hope was killing me.

So I applied, telling myself that I couldn’t live with the regret of not having gone to an MFA program and given my writing a chance to bloom.

My pros and cons, goals and challenges, before applying to MFA programs:

Pros:

  • Time off to write
    • At the time, I was in a high stress, demanding fulltime job. I had barely any time to write or focus on myself. An MFA would help me focus on my writing!
  • Find mentors
    • I had no contacts in writing, and was hungry for mentorship.
  • Find a writing community
    • Most of my friends were from my business career-track. I wanted writer friends, and I wanted to be a part of a writing community, somehow.
  • Maybe get published/find contacts in publishing?
    • Come on–every writer can dream!

Cons:

  • Lots of money
    • MFA programs cost a lot of money, even with scholarships. Plus I’d spend 2 years not making money.
  • Could still write on my own
    • Who really needs an MFA program just to write, right?
  • 2 years is a commitment
    • A year is a long time. 2 years is a longer time.

How did it turn out?

I found mentors and found some friends. I’m more plugged into a writing community now. As for writing feedback, I’m not sure if it was all valuable–in fact, I’m sure most of it was not so constructive. I kept all the feedback, and I look at it now and then, seeing feedback that I now find valuable (not so much at the time).

In all honesty, some of the feedback steered me off course in my novel–and not being as confident as I ought to have been as a writer, I went off-roading for awhile, excising chapters in my novel that turned out to be valuable, writing chapters that I later threw away. But I’m back on track, and probably for the better. Some writing professors were better than others. Several were fantastic. One was patronizing. A few became friends. One has become a good friend.

One of my writing mentors wrote me scathing feedback my first month in the program–he made me cry for a week. But it was the best advice ever. And I’ve got a thicker skin (valuable to writers) for it.

I got into several writing programs (I applied to 7). I got waitlisted at a highly ranked program in the Northeast, got into a good program in New York City, and got into two programs in the Bay Area. After interviewing students (interview students! This is a big financial and emotional decision!), I decided on the program where the students were a lot happier and the faculty super supportive.

It was the right decision. Over the course of my MFA experience, our program hired more spectacular writing faculty and things got even better. I’d recommend my program to most anyone. I know, I wish I could tell you the name of the program, but that would threaten my anonymity. So email me offline if you want to know.

I worked throughout my MFA (a thing I now regret). Even though I might I have regretted NOT working–even with a TA’ship (which paid full tuition my second year), the MFA cost me tens of thousands of dollars. And I’m not going to recoup those costs in a related career field. Still, working part-time robbed me of a singular focus on writing. Bleah. Try to take 100% time off if you can.

Publishing became less of an important thing. In fact, the publishing credit I am most proud of, happened before my MFA. I wonder a bit about what happened with my writing aesthetic–did the MFA “standardize” it? (There is such a thing as “MFA writing,” I think). I decided that writing was a process, I became more patient.

I emerged calling myself a “writer” without wincing or feeling like an impostor.

I found incredible mentors! But some of them are people I met via writing conferences and residencies–so it’s possible to find mentors outside of an MFA program.

I still find that the writing friends I met before and outside of the MFA program are the most supportive. I have friends at school who hang out, but that’s just not me.

So in sum–it was worth it. I would do it again.

But if you can’t go, or decide not to go, all is not lost–you can still find mentors and writing friends. It may be more difficult, and the relationships less accessible, but it’s possible.

Okay. I hope this is helpful.

p.s.  As you can see from the picture above–Spring has come to Berkeley.

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41 Comments

Filed under Helpful, MFA, Writing

41 responses to “The MFA retrospective: was it worth it?

  1. Great post, and all great points. I would have liked this advice some years ago when I was applying and decided to go!

  2. Akrypti

    Definitely a helpful post! I’m considering applying to an MFA program, but as you touched on, it’s a huge commitment both in time and money, not to mention there’s no guarantee what you’ll get out of it. For someone who’s already been through a grad program, I really don’t know if I want to do it all over again for an MFA.

    I guess we’ll see. =) Thanks for this post. For a lot of us who google-research for info, this will prove to be an invaluable reference.

  3. To Akrypti above- if you aren’t sure about doing an MFA (especially with grad school already under your belt), why not go to some of the really well-regarded one or two week writers’ conferences, with workshops? I know many who have gone to Squaw Valley and loved it. I also know a half dozen people who have gotten a great deal out of VONA, Voices of Our Nation, but that one is focused on people of color.

    I haven’t researched these – I’m passing on word of mouth. I just know that my buddies who have gone to these two above have made great connections with other writers and with writing mentors. YMMV.

  4. Squaw and VONA are both awesome, as is Napa Valley Writers’ Workshop. It was after attending Squaw that I decided to definitely pursue an MFA.

    I have lifetime friends from having attended all of them.

  5. Building a good personal writing community is probably the best part of the investment. But a close second–if it’s available as it was in my MFA program–is to take publishing courses. Having the chance to learn web design, book and magazine publishing, copyediting, etc. gave me marketable skills and good perspective on how the industry works and where it’s headed. A lot of classmates got burned out on creative writing at the end of a master’s program but were still $40k or more in the hole; being able to then step onto a parallel path, ready to move back to writing when it’s time, makes a big difference.

  6. Eve

    Wow, Jade, how helpful is this? Very.

    I particularly liked the pros and cons. Just one question… how did you find mentors and writing friends if not in the MFA program?

    Wondering about that lately.

  7. Andrew: I wish my program had some publishing courses! I know there are MFA programs out there with some good ones (Emerson comes to mind). My program happened to have good pedagogy (teaching) courses, and it was a great supplement. We also had book arts courses, and everyone who took those loved them. But I agree with you–explore!

    Eve: I’m so glad it’s helpful. Outside of the MFA program, I found mentors and writing friends by going to writing conferences and writing workshops and writing residencies. Check out your community writing classes (like university extension classes), writing conferences (Squaw, Napa Valley, Breadloaf, etc., etc.) and writing residencies.

  8. Andrew: I wish my program had some publishing courses! I know there are MFA programs out there with some good ones (Emerson comes to mind).

    And Emerson is where I went. 🙂

  9. JW

    This was just what I needed to read. I’m currently working an acceptable job in advertising in Philadelphia, and just received my acceptance to Emerson (after I’d just given up on graduate study).

    Trying to justify that kind of move (if only to myself) has been a challenge, but I don’t think the writer in me could stand it if I gave up the opportunity to leave New Jersey for new sources of feedback.

    Did you find that your MFA was as stingy with financial aid as they’re rumored to be?

  10. Hi JW: I am not so familiar with Emerson, so hopefully Andrew or someone else from Emerson can help you out with the financial aid question. I have another friend who went to Emerson and maybe she can reply.

    It’s a precious opportunity–the only thing I kick myself over now that I’m fully immersed in a paying job is the fact that I didn’t just quit while in the MFA and focus on my writing 100% 🙂

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  12. slcster

    Just wanted to drop a quick note and thank you for your post. Very well written and just what I needed to hear. Good luck in your future writing endeavors!

  13. slcster: i’m glad it’s helpful!

  14. UM

    I am debating applying for an MFA program. Thanks for the post. I am new to your blog.

    I have just received a certificate in Creative Writing from a continuing ed program at a prestiguous university but feeling I want more. It is interesting what you said about the comments. I find there is an MFA type comment, words like meta-fiction creep in, and I worry about that. I resist thinking about writing like that.

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  16. Another Writer

    Your post was interesting. It sounds like money is very important to you.

    Maybe the program experience would have been more successful with both feet in.

  17. UM: If you can do it, I’d say do it. But it isn’t a perfect experience–you should go in knowing exactly what your goals are. 🙂

    Another Writer: Are you calling me materialistic? If so, then that’s not the impression I wanted to give. I’m just trying to give a balanced opinion of MFA programs. I enjoyed my experience, I got a lot of out of it, but as with all things, there are sacrifices…including $20K+/year tuition in some cases. If $20K isn’t a big deal to you, then hats off to you!

  18. Thanks for this – it’s very helpful. Having spent 7 years in grad school already (MSc; Phd), I’m ambivalent about returning. Two years devoted to writing sounds luxurious and would no doubt be helpful. But I’ve also found in my original field (science, policy, ethics) that experience outside the classroom is sometimes more educational. Grad school can be a little too luxurious – intellectually that is, not financially. I like your blog. Will keep reading!

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  20. Anthony

    thanks for taking the time to share you experience. Very helpful.

  21. This is the article I was looking for. Thanks for sharing. I’m really struggling with the decision of going or not. I’m a long shot academically, but I feel I owe it to myself to give it a try.

  22. Jade Park, you are awesome. How glad I am to have found this blog! I am so linking to you from my novel’s blog. (monaagain.blogspot.com)

    I will now search for your email so I can find out which MFA program you’re in.

    • I’m glad the post is helpful–and feel free to email me direct if you have further questions. I blog anonymously so you probably won’t find out which MFA program I attended, though. If you want to converse offline feel free to email me directly.

  23. Jade,

    Thank you for your insights into the MFA. I’ve been debating pursuing one for some time, and from your post, it sounds like it might supply the two things I feel my writing needs–a community of like-minded individuals and total immersion in reading and writing (i.e., a kick in the ass to quit wondering what if and actually go for it).

  24. Really great post! thx I’ve been toying with the idea and really struggling with the decision of going or not. But figure it’s now or never! plus beats being in a cubicle.

    cheers!

  25. kaedence e

    Hello, thanks for blogging!

    I’m currently a 24 year old undergraduate. I’d like to teach and write one day (I have no illusion that the writing will necessarily pay for itself). I think I’d prefer to teach English at the community college or university level. Financially and opportunity-wise, would an MFA make more sense than an MA in English? I have mixed feelings about the potential effects of an MFA on my writing style, but writing is absolutely my primary passion. (Though literature is a very close second). Any feedback is greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    Kaedence

    • I so feel the same way about MFA’s! I’m like the opposite of pretentious writing (I look up to the Sookie Stackhouse series for gawd’s sake).

    • Hi Kaedence: I teach at the community college level–and my MFA is more than useful to me (esp since my program had a pedagogy class, and because I did a partial MA in Education at Berkeley). My MA peers are also doing well at teaching community college, too. I think if I had to choose, I’d go with whatever your passion might be (creative writing? or analysis of literature?)

      Also–at the university level, it’s largely going to be Ph.Ds at work. the MFA is the terminal degree for creative writing (there are a few Ph.D programs in creative writing, but not many), so you might be limited there. But then again–I have had at least one peer go from an MFA into an English Ph.D. program at Davis. Again, my MFA program required us to take literature classes.

      In sum, go with your passion–whatever choice you make, if propelled with passion, will take you farther.

    • and a p.s. neither an MFA or an MA or a PhD will teach you HOW to teach, unfortunately–unless you take a pedagogy class. so that’s another reason why i say to go with your passion.

      anyone else have advice?

  26. My take: MFA programs can be amazing if you pick the right program, receive enough funding + are blessed with a talented cohort + a livable city. But it’s not a magic wand. Even so, all things considered, I think it’s worth it most of the time. No matter what flaws a MFA program might have–and there are tons of legit ones to mention–the fact is, most of the time, you get 2-3 years to write, which is an awesome privilege.

    My only caveat is: consider programs with great funding because: you will avoid going in debt for a program that will never pay for itself except on a technical/emotional level. Also, a program that is well funded will pay you to write, which means you won’t have to work a separate job. Also, most programs with good funding require you to teach, which is the best way to get teaching experience. Lastly, I think it’s really helpful when people take time off from school for a while + live a little before getting their MFA. Workshop is for craft, but it can’t/won’t/doesn’t make up for a robust imagination, cultivated empathy + rich life experience. The last thing you want is for your writing to be clinical, sterile, cut-off from the world you’re trying to capture in your writing, which can happen when you don’t take a moment to breath. I find that older students often get the most out of their MFA program because they know who they are, they know what they want + they know they don’t know everything.

  27. Thank you for your wonderful and honest report on your MFA experience. If someone didn’t WANT to take the risk of an MFA, where or how could they get the same functional information? Is there a good book on the business of writing? Selling? Marketing? Or did your MFA mostly focus on the writing?

    • Hi Crash–the MFA isn’t so much about the business of writing/selling/marketing, but more about developing one’s craft as a writer. So yes, my MFA mostly focused on the writing. I’d say about 99% on the writing. There were occasional workshops about publishing, and some discussions about the whole process of finding an agent…but really, an MFA is about honing your writing. If you’re not interested in focusing on your writing, you’re better off applying to and attending writing conferences (Squaw Valley, Napa Valley, Bread Loaf, Sewanee being several of the notable ones) that split workshops and panels about publishing and finding an agent about 50/50. If you want to just focus 100% on the business of writing, you’re probably better off reading blogs written by literary agents (like Nathan Bransford or the blog archive of Miss Snark) to learn. There are also books out there, many many books.

      Mostly, I am interested in your comment, “the risk of an MFA”–what do you mean by that, specifically (how do you view the purpose of an MFA)? An MFA is absolutely no guarantee of being published. So if you consider an MFA as a means to an end of being published then yes, there is a lot of “risk.” But if you would like to attend an MFA for the sake of improving your writing and building your writing community…there is probably a very low “risk” of pursuing an MFA experience.

  28. I have been thinking about getting my MFA too. I already have a BA in English and an English teaching credential and MA in Education, but after working full-time as an English teacher and am unemployed again, with few job prospects, despite being a good teacher. I want to change careers, but this would be my second career change and I’m only 28 (I originally planned on being a lawyer and worked as a paralegal before going to grad school) I love writing and have always wanted to give it a full go, but part of me wonders if getting my mfa is impractical and indulgent. I’m already in debt from my last round at grad school, even though I had a fellowship (not working for 2 years racked up tons of debt). I wanted to change careers and an mfa allows me to both focus on my writing and get my foot in the door if I want to teach at the university level…but the money is a huge thing. I don’t know who “another writer” is but for the rest of us, money matters and not ’cause we’re materialistic (I left the law to be a public school teacher, I obviously wasn’t after the big bucks) but it’s about survival. I don’t even think I can get financial aid anymore because I’ve already gotten a postgraduate degree. Anyhow, could you email me at writearound@gmail.com ’cause I’d love some advice.

  29. Andrea

    What school did you go to for your mfa? I was recently accepted at the VCFA, for a low residency.
    Andrea

  30. Question, I did struggle with my undergraduate because I had many distractions-work, girlfriends, etc, etc-but I still have this urge to create something and I feel like I could learn how to do it at an MFA program.

    How do I know if I really want to take the plunge…?

  31. jad

    I decided against the MFA or grad school in general in PhD English/Philosophy/Etc …all of which I had considered. I already did undergrad in Creative Writing and Philosophy and was extremely focused those last 2 years. I am also very picky about where I am happy living, and the thought of putting my career on hold and going into more debt (actual tuition, rent, moving expenses, + lost opportunity cost of those 2-3 years) was a bit scary with nothing at all guaranteed out of it. I am also not interested in teaching whatsoever so that aspect of the degree would be of no benefit. I enjoy freelance writing and have a few small time things. The only benefit of the MFA for ME would be to improve my writing and the hopes of landing a big book deal at this point, I’m 31… I would most likely have to move somewhere I don’t want to, stop everything I’m doing, and pay out of pocket. Far FAR too risky. I think at 22 it would have been a different story. I just go to writers groups instead. I still haven’t landed a major book deal, but really, I don’t know that many outside of the very top MFA programs who have.

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  33. Chinmayee

    Thanks for the wonderful post Jade. I would like to do an MFA, but I have a BIG problem. I have a Masters in Economics and workex in a field completely unrelated to writing. My work is unpublished and I do not have any writing mentors. How would the Letters of Reco work out for me then? Without relevant LoRs, admission would probably be impossible- and as you say- an MFA is quite useful. Do you have any advice for me?

  34. Jeremy

    What was the mfa program that you recommend? Please share!!!!
    Any mfa programs you would NOT recommend and why?

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