Saturday, June 19, 2010

Following a Different Path: Is an MFA Right for You and Your Book?

Scan any writers' magazine, browse any writers' website, and you read about Master of Fine Arts programs.  Are MFA programs all they're cracked up to be?  Is it worth the time, the money, the sheer effort?  I changed my life to get my MFA.  But I could also say my MFA changed my life.  I'm forever grateful I decided to get it, despite the cost, the profound shifts it demanded of my routine.

Yet some writers go down this path and find it's not the be-all, end-all it's advertised.  How can you evaluate such a huge step, especially if you are aiming to get a book published in this lifetime?

After I graduated from graduate school the first time (1979, MA in Russian, hoping for a career as a language teacher), I began collecting information about graduate writing programs.  Most universities offered advanced degrees in English literature; writing wasn't considered as important as critical analysis.  That changed in the 1990s when MFA programs began to appear like sudden spring flowers in the desert after a rain.  From two or three years of study, you could fill in your missing knowledge of basic and advanced writing techniques, get exposed to literature in a new way, learn how to analyze writing from a writer's point of view, and complete a manuscript draft with hopes of publishing.   

They also required much time and much money.  Earning a living, starting my writing and teaching career, were more practical steps for me, so the dream of graduate work in writing got put to the side.

I encountered it again when I was recovering from a serious illness, thinking deeply about my life goals and realizing that this dream was still strong--and unmet.  I was taking weekly writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and Iowa Summer Writers' Conference each summer.  I had studied privately with published novelists, worked with two writers' groups and several writing partners, published many nonfiction books, from memoir to cookbooks to self-help, and even some short stories.

But I wanted to write a novel.  Exactly how, eluded me.

So I dug out my file folder of MFA brochures.  Would it really help my convoluted 100,000 word manuscript to immerse myself in a world of writing?  

I began calling and emailing writer friends, as well as some instructors I knew in MFA programs, to ask their opinion.  I was a published writer, well educated, much older than most graduate students.  Would it be better to hire a private tutor, hire professional editors, to get the novel written?  Is the world of fiction all that different from the nonfiction/memoir world I knew well?

The responses surprised me.  Several friends told me they enjoyed their two years in graduate school but their manuscript still languished.  They'd learned a lot of good guidelines on how to write; they'd made friends and gotten to know the inside industry of publishing a bit better.  But they still didn't have a published book.  Two writers in my writing classes were struggling with the same questions they'd brought to their MFA programs.  The most surprising comment came from an instructor at a large university's MFA program.  "Save the money," he emailed me, "hire an editor and do it on your own."

Others were more encouraging, speaking of valuable literary friendships and writing networks that came from their graduate-school years.  Several had gone on to publish and attributed it to their MFA program.  But they all said, "It really depends on the faculty.  Not everyone who writes well, teaches well."

One summer at the Iowa Writers' Conference I took a week-long course with a writer I admired greatly.  His short stories were stunning.  His teaching was not.  A born lecturer, he liked to dominate the classroom.   I preferred a collaborative atmosphere and wilted fast.

I took this experience to heart.  I made a list of questions.

1.  Which MFA program offered strong instruction, not just a stable of instructors with writing fame?
2.  Which program required completion of a manuscript--an important deadline I could work with to finish that novel at last?
3.  Were flexible schedules possible?  I couldn't afford to stop working.
4.  Cost was certainly a factor--the illustrious programs cost nearly $35,000 a year.  What gave the most value for the money? 
5.  Was it more important to go after a big-name school, for its potential on my writing resume, or was it better to find a truly creative atmosphere that would let me expand and explore beyond what I already knew?

I applied to six schools, not a simple process in itself.  It took months to complete the lengthy applications, finish the writing samples, get references.  Competition was fierce.  The low-residency college I ended up attending was small, very alternative, with a faculty roster significantly less impressive than several of the New York City universities.  But it fit my budget and let me keep working.  It required two on-campus residencies a year, 10 days of classes, and the rest of the coursework was done by mailed in packets every three weeks.  I was assigned two of the best writing teachers I'd ever studied with, both accomplished writers but nowhere near famous.  They understood my story, understood my dilemma, and showed me the path to finish.

I graduated with my MFA degree in 2006.  I took a year after graduation to finish my novel, working privately with professional editors.  Then I began shopping it to agents and publishers.  It was published in 2009.

Many writers in my classes ask about MFA programs.  Are they worth the time and money?  Do they really provide the boost to your writing--and writing career--that they promise?  I go back to my own experience.  What did I come away with, in terms of writing growth, in terms of what an MFA program can do for a writer?         

My MFA program opened me to an astonishing scope of literature.  I read poems, plays, essays, and books I'd never heard of--that changed the way I looked at writing and the world.  Because I was forced to do so, I explored and expanded my horizons.  I finished my book.  All this came to me because of the excellent instruction and the ability of those instructors to really listen to my needs as a writer, to guide me well.  Because they were good teachers, rather than just great writers, they knew how to present the pathway and help me walk it.

When I was deciding where to apply, a beloved teacher helped me with a good question.  "What would you rather have," she asked, "the chance to become more creative or the chance to know more?"

I thought about this for a long time.  I chose the chance to become more creative.  It was an excellent decision.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Even if you have zero interest in MFA programs, take some time to explore your writing dreams.  Using the question that changed my life, above, ask yourself:
1.  For my next step, what do I need the most?  Creativity or knowledge?
2.  Where can I most easily find this? 

If the MFA journey interests you, check out the Associated Writing Programs (AWP).  Their magazine, The Writer's Chronicle, offers great resources for learning about graduate programs in writing.  Check them out at www.


  1. What a wonderful post on MFA programs. I too have been asking people who've worked towards their MFAs what they thought, what they were hoping to accomplish and if they thought the MFA helped them to meet their goals. I decided to apply to low-residency programs and found one that I think has great teachers (one of my most important criteria), plus an atmosphere that fosters creativity.
    Thank you for sharing your insights and experience!

  2. Thanks, Christine, and all the best for your new adventure into MFA-land. It's a wonderful journey.

  3. This is a great resource, thank you for sharing it!

  4. Wonder if any of these MFA programs are on-line for people like me who reside outside the USA?


  5. Hi Savita,
    Most of the programs in the U.S. require a short residency each year. Some require two a year. But the rest of the time is nonresident.

    I think there must be some online MFA programs by now. Have you done a google search?

    I will be offering an online book-writing class in the fall, through the Loft Literary Center. I'll post information on it so you can consider it.

    All the best,

  6. Mary,
    Thank you for the insightful blog post. I enjoy writing immensely and recently started trying to pursue it seriously by using blogging as a vehilcle and attending workshops here and there. An MBA in Marketing, I have been working with tecnhology companies. A recent encounter with an illness made me re-evaluate my goals. This post really resonated with me as I struggle with some of the questions you raise.

  7. Thank you for posting, Sonia! I'm so glad it was useful to you.

  8. What a great guide to the "should I get an MFA" decision-making process! Thanks, Mary!

  9. Thanks, Adele! I'm so glad it was helpful.