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.
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:
- 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!
- 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.