Monday, January 26, 2015

To MFA, or not to MFA? That is the question...

When people find out that I'm enrolled in an MFA program, they often ask me if it's an essential part of becoming a part of the writing profession. And while there are some who believe that an MFA is necessary, I'm in the camp that says it might not be.

Which sort of makes me look like this.
You might be asking why I'm in a program at all. Simple. I'm in a situation where my MFA fits my lifestyle and doesn't break my bank (my body, however, is a different matter, but we'll get to that in a bit). Besides, I feel like I need it to grow as a writer.

So here, in my experience so far, are my suggestions if you're considering an MFA program:

Like I said before, don't break your bank.

In my MFA program, I'm surrounded by writers who are battling huge debt, loans, broken-down cars, and other horrors. While I'm sure getting a writing degree has been the right choice for them, I wouldn't recommend it if you're not a situation where you have to break your bank to do so.

With my librarian job, I get a tuition discount, which basically adds up to about $100 or so a class, and I work in a job where my time is somewhat flexible. So if you're in this kind of position, and you're looking to grow, that's when an MFA might be the right thing for you. (But I also know many people who have been successful writers without one.)

Surround yourself with other writers, but keep writing on your own, too.

A lot of my classmates tell me how astonished they are with how much I write. Right now, I'm drafting a new project while working on an old one, because I'm making the time to do what I can, when I can.

Even some of my writing instructors are encouraging us to make time to write outside of class, which I'm thankful for. Some people are good at talking about writing (see the OA blogger typing to you right now), but my instructor mentioned this great book called, Do the Work, which encourages the doing rather than the talking.

So, write what what you can, when you can, no matter what your current situation might be.

Be open to learn new things, but only use the information that works for you. 

I'm lucky that I have instructors who are open (and sometimes even insistent) on plot-driven material. But this isn't always the case in MFA programs. A lot of times (perhaps more twenty years ago than now) literary writing is encouraged to be poetic more than anything else, and "commercial" fiction is sometimes looked down upon. I'm lucky that my program covers a lot of disciplines (fiction, nonfiction, poetry) and allows for flexibility in creativity. Just know that not all programs will emphasize this.

And so far, I've gotten some good guidance on how to help my writing grow. One instructor helped me see how I could make my characters more empathetic to others (and therefore more sympathetic to readers), and another encouraged me to "write with a heartbeat," because my prose tended to fall a bit flat. Both these suggestions have helped my writing immensely.

But if there's a guy either in your MFA class or critique group who wants you to change the plot because that's not how he would have written it, you can go ahead and tell him to suck his hot air.

Make sure you take care of yourself.

I'm mentioning this one last, but it's the most important, and one thing I've neglected lately. Ever since I've started my MFA program, whenever I had a week of vacation, or a bit of down time, I've always gotten sick. Even now, the scratchy throat and congested chest I have are so closely following my previous illness that I'm not sure if it's the same iteration of it, or something different. And while I did take the advice of my instructors to write in the morning, I didn't make the effort to get to bed at a decent hour and get enough sleep.

So here are some suggestions (especially while in a graduate program) that might help:

Get enough sleep.

Spend at least 20 minutes a day doing something that's completely unproductive.

Choose physical exercise that fits your lifestyle and routine.

Stop being so hard on yourself, you perfectionist, you.

That last one was mostly for me, but you get my point. Which brings me to my last one. Do whatever helps you grow the most as a writer, whether that means an MFA or not.


  1. Great tips. Very informative. And thanks for the book recommendation.

  2. Great tips. Very informative. And thanks for the book recommendation.


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