Five Things I Loved (and Five I Loathed) About My MFA Experience
I last wrote for this site in late 2015. The core cause of my absence is this: I spent 2015 through 2018 earning my Master's of Fine Arts in fiction and have spent the time since teaching comp and lit at a local community college. My hope is that these experiences give me some worthwhile insight to share.
Given the thoroughly mixed experience I had with the MFA program itself, I felt this would be a good place to start. So, in this article, I'm going to share five things I loved and five I hated about my master's program.
Some Obligatory Disclaimers
I am just one person, and—based on the conversations I've had with other writers post-MFA—experiences can really run the gamut. And, of course, this is just one MFA program in one particular trio of years.
It's also crucial to note that I was attending a low-residency program that provided no funding and no direct teaching experience. I appreciated the model but it has many trade-offs. All of this just to say, really, your mileage may vary.
That noted, let's get on with the article proper.
Hated: The Price-Tag
Every single benefit I list here must be weighed against a massive price tag. For me, tallying tuition plus all related expenses? It's somewhere in the realm of 30k to 40k.
I could have taken an entire year off for that same amount. I could have bought, like, eight cars. That is … a lot of money. I will be paying it back, slowly, for many years to come. Even thinking about it makes my lungs feel all swiss-cheesed.
Loved: The Built-In Motivation to Write
I knew from childhood I wanted to be a writer. Yet, in the 16 years of my adult life, maybe six of them included a consistent writing routine. Whatever my excuses, here's my conclusion: Life happens and it's so easy to let writing be the part that slides.
Even if you love writing, it can be damn hard to do the work consistently. For me, being in an MFA program made that hard task exponentially easier. By the time I walked out of the program, I'd written over 500 new pages, had gotten feedback on most of them, and had done multiple rounds of sweeping revision on major work. It's work I feel proud of, and I absolutely feel I "leveled up" as a writer.
Hated: The Echo Chamber Nature of the Program
Echo chambers and U.S. politics are way beyond the scope of this article. Here's my oversimplified observation, though: In my program, and several others I've heard stories about, there tended to be a set of "right beliefs" that was socially enforced.
Now, on most of the applicable issues, I agreed with those progressive "right beliefs." The problem is more in a hard-lined presumption of righteousness. In my view, there were three negative outcomes of this tendency.
First, it suppressed those with dissenting views (even when those views were simply less intense versions of the dominant attitude). Second, it asserted that these views were unassailably right, which furthers our cultural tendency of shouting our beliefs rather than discussing them. And third, it directly alienated those who disagreed. Most conservative students I met quit the program—and the one I know of who didn't quit did not seem especially happy to be there.
Loved: Workshopping with a Wide Array of Writers
During my MFA program, I had the chance to work closely with a couple dozen aspiring writers. This happened both during the non-residency phase (when everyone was working from their home state) and during residencies (when we all popped into the same building for a two-week intensive).
For me, the benefit came from the mix of diversity and consistency. With many different workshop leaders and attendees, I was able to hear a wide variety of viewpoints and witness many different workshopping strategies. With a consistent and relatively small cohort of students, though, I was also able to repeatedly work with a number of my peers; I found it highly rewarding to see their work progress, get to learn their particular styles, and know that they were giving me feedback based on a similar understanding of my work.
It's also worth noting that many people—less introverted than I am—will get even more benefit from connection to their cohorts. I've known many students who move on from MFA programs but keep in touch with their peers and continue to share work for feedback. Though I haven't done that myself, an MFA program certainly affords the opportunity.
Hated: Limited Options Outside of the MFA
A low-residency program keeps your options open far better than other MFAs. In a full residency, fully funded program, you have something of a straitjacket on your choices: A full-time class load combines with the steep learning curve of your obligatory teaching role and there's often little time left afterward. If you want to go into teaching, that can be great—but I've known many a full-residency student who resented the teaching work they were saddled with.
Even with the greater flexibility of low-res, though, I could not do an MFA while also pursuing any kind of career. I had to make strategic decisions about which work was compatible with maintaining my academic obligations and personal life. The four weeks of residency time per year also meant I had real trouble taking vacations for any other purpose. The one exception was my wedding—and even then, our honeymoon consisted of a road trip to the location of my residency. (My wife is currently sitting next to me, saying with barely withheld weeping, "with my wife having to spend her time alone while I went to the residency!")
Loved: The Expanded Reading Selection
Each mentee group built their own reading list on a per-semester basis. Because I was getting recommendations from invested writers from a variety of backgrounds, doors were opened into genres I was unlikely to have explored otherwise.
Sure, yes, some of them were duds. Some were bizarre. Others were fantastic experiences that I wouldn't have picked up (or might have put down quickly) if they weren't built into a program of this nature. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is perhaps the best representation of this: It was a weighty book with a slow pace, but—despite my initially meh response to it—I wound up adoring it by the end.
The program also did an especially good job of introducing me to more work from non-U.S., non-white, non-male authors. In some ways, it helped me realize how narrow my education was since it gravitated around the traditional literary canon.
Hated: The Bizarre Power Struggles
I'm trying to figure out how to say this without over-asserting my view or coming off as condescending. I may not be able to succeed. Here, let me distill it to this:
Some of the conflicts I saw and experienced were freakin' weird, dude.
I had the head of program lecture me, with a vaguely threatening air, because I'd taken down some folding chairs without permission. (Okay, that's not the whole story … but the whole story would take longer than I have space for.)
I saw a lecture go off the rails as two students started yelling at each other about who had more privilege, and the instructor just sat there.
Some students wrote fairly … problematic … work just to be edgy and others tried to get them officially penalized by the Powers that Be for doing so.
There was always some sort of drama going on, and those in power within the institution—at least when I was there—seemed to get caught up in that drama with surprising regularity.
Loved: The Opportunities Opened in Academia
To be honest, I'm not certain I want to be teaching five years from now. It has its ups, its downs, its shining moments, its moments of "I know I haven't submitted anything for two months but can I please have a passing grade." That said, I always knew that I wanted to give academia a shot. Whether it winds up being my calling, I would regret not giving it the good old (pun intended) college try.
To put it generously, a postgraduate degree (especially a terminal degree like an MFA) is like a membership card into the world of academia. And, given the potential instability of writing as a career, academia is one of the more reliable fallbacks for those enthusiastic about the craft.
Loved: Working Closely with Mentors I Respected
I settled on my program for one reason: Francesca Lia Block. I fell in love with Echo quite a number of years ago and have read a few of her books since. My own writing style was shaped by the lyricism of her approach. When I found out she was teaching at this program, it became a no-brainer for me to apply.
The semester when I was mentored by Francesca was brilliant. Her feedback balanced incisiveness and support, she was professional but personable, [insert pretty much any compliment you can think of here]. I did an interview with Francesca Lia Block during my program and recently re-read it; I was reminded how grounded but inspirational I found her. (Okay, I'll stop gushing. Sorry.)
It was an awesome semester. However, even in the semesters I worked with mentors I'd never heard of before, I had a spectacular experience. I focused on a singular novel-length work and got the perspective of multiple established authors, which was massively useful.
Hated: Realizing I Could Have Gotten Most of These Benefits Elsewhere
Did you know that Francesca Lia Block teaches classes here on LitReactor? Lots of authors teach here or elsewhere on the web.
Did you know that most established authors who teach classes with MFA programs are also willing to give feedback on your work for a reasonable fee? I've spoken to a number of established authors who provide this service and, based on my conversations, you're looking at $500 to $2500 for formative feedback on a novel-length piece.
Did you know that you can establish a workshopping group or get diverse reading recommendations without needing the approval of an academic institution?
Did you know that writing conferences provide classes on par with those you'll get at a low-residency program?
You see where I'm going, right? With the exception of the opportunities in academia (which really do require the degree), the benefits I received could have been obtained for a small fraction of the price I paid.
I deeply value everything I received during my MFA program and still reap the benefits on the daily. Though the cost was high, I think it's naive to ignore the benefits of having a pre-established structure. Whatever I could have theoretically done on my own during those same years, what I actually would have done is likely far less. Having the structure, support, and legitimization of an MFA program did a great deal to keep me learning and writing. And, when all is said and done, I feel I am a more effective, more knowledgeable writer for having had these experiences.
In some ways, I'm still processing everything I've learned—and may want to share more of my thoughts. I found that there were quite a few experiences / particulars that I had to omit to keep the article length in check. I may expand on some of these in separate articles. Let me know if there are any areas that you're interested to hear more about.
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