New series: MFA myths and tips

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about my experience in getting my MFA in creative writing. (Okay, when I say “a lot of people,” it’s mostly creative writing undergraduates and the people in my life with regular jobs who had to listen to me complain when I was in graduate school. I think they wonder how much of what I said was true, and what was said in a sleep-deprived, overly creative haze). Seriously, though, it’s a big decision to commit two years or more of your life and possibly thousands of dollars to a venture with an unclear or uncertain outcome. As a result of our still-problematic economy, more and more people consider graduate programs as a way of increasing their marketability, while at the same time giving them something productive to do until the job prospects (hopefully? someday?) improve.

But MFA programs are different than most graduate programs in many ways, especially in the intensely personal nature of the work. Also, there are many more uncertainties involved. If you get an advanced degree in engineering, for example, you’re going to learn a certain skill set that applies directly to one field. With any creative writing program, the curriculum differs much more widely. Additionally, one question always lingers: can you actually teach someone to be a better writer?

All of the issues and questions above are the inspiration for a new series of blogs that I will begin this month: MFA myths and tips. I’ll share my perspectives on graduate programs and creative writing in academia, both as an alumna and now as a writer and instructor of writing. I would also love to answer questions that anyone has, so feel free to leave a comment below or contact me.


2 thoughts on “New series: MFA myths and tips

  1. This is a great idea, Katie! I get similar questions from students all the time. I would say that the biggest myths I had going into the program were:

    1. One of the professors would work closely with me and mentor me throughout my 2 years in the program.
    2. It’s a good idea to workshop a novel in an MFA program.
    3. That I would finish my novel while in the program and emerge “victorious” with an agent (I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I really did harbor hope of it happening).
    4. That adjuncting could be a sustainable and “writing friendly” way to earn a living.
    5. That the program would prepare me for the professional side of writing, such as submitting work, publishing, how to get an agent, non-writing jobs within the literary world, etc.

    The biggest tip I give to any prospective MFAer is to not go into debt; i.e. only go if you get full funding or you have the money to pay for your education in cash. I set this rule for myself, only to break it because I really, really wanted to go to school and I didn’t have any appealing ideas of what to do instead or in the meantime while waiting another year. I did end up getting partial funding in my second year, and was able to pay some of my tuition out-of-pocket, but still I now have a monthly student loan bill to pay, and that is not a fun obligation to have on an adjunct’s salary.

    In the end, I don’t really regret anything. I think the biggest benefits of the MFA program are the connections you form with your classmates and the amount that you learn and improve in a short period of time. Two years after graduating, I’m still writing and I’m a much better writer than I was going into the program. I am also much better at critiquing my own and others’ work. And how great is it, really, to get to spend 2 years immersing yourself in the thing you love more than anything else.

    1. Thanks for this detailed comment, Elizabeth! The third myth you mentioned, coming out of the program “victorious” with an agent and publishing contract, is probably going to be the topic of my first post. And I really agree with what you said about not regretting anything in part because you became a better writer. I feel the same way. 🙂

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