To MFA or Not to MFA? That is the Question

Saturday, July 26, 2008

by Susan L. Eberling

Perhaps I’m somewhat addicted to school, but I am very tempted by the lure of a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing. It sounds great to once again learn and stretch my mind in a rigorous classroom setting. There is a cost though, in time and money, to pursuing and achieving an MFA. Karen Rigby, recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and author of the forthcoming chapbook of poetry, Savage Machinery, shared with me some of her insight into the costs and benefits of Master of Fine Arts writing programs.

(By the way, keep an eye out in our August issue for an interview with Karen discussing writing poetry and getting it published.)

WOW: The deeper a writer delves into the literary world, the more she hears about this mysterious degree called the Master of Fine Arts. You have an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota. What did getting your MFA do for your writing and your writing career? What did you take away from it?

Karen: In terms of career—I’m not sure what it’s done for me. I’m one of those single-minded people that knew what they wanted to do starting from the first grade, so I might have become a writer through some other means even if I hadn’t pursued an MFA, though it might have been a more circuitous route. What I can say that I took from the experience, apart from meeting people and being enriched by the environment and the usual things like that, was the knowledge that I am capable of continuing. Once you leave a program you no longer have that built-in workshop that meets regularly (unless you go out and seek such a workshop again through some other means, usually informally, among colleagues) and you no longer have an artificial deadline about when a poem is due. So you have to be disciplined or give yourself the day or week or month off, as need be, and keep writing, which I’m doing.

WOW: I’m sure that the workshop atmosphere of an MFA program helps keep you writing. Now, can you tell us a little about the workload of a typical MFA program?

Karen: The workload varies. There are 1, 2, and 3 year programs. A shorter program will by necessity mean you’d need to finish your thesis—usually a book—that much sooner. Programs also vary in their requirements—some ask you to take a certain number of literature courses along with your writing classes, and so on.
Some programs offer stipends in exchange for teaching courses, which is a great opportunity, especially when you get to teach the subject you’re most interested in, be it fiction or poetry or non-fiction.

Having to think about distilling and gathering information, to think about methods of explaining and teaching writing to someone else, makes you examine that subject more closely, perhaps more analytically, too. But as much pleasure as there is in teaching, that also adds to the workload, especially if you’re new to teaching and thus trying to find the balance between planning, grading, mentoring and doing your own work.

There are low-residency MFA programs if attending full-time isn’t a viable option. There are writers that must attend to their day jobs, families, or other responsibilities simultaneously, too, so I think it’d be reasonable to say the workload is going to be as intense as you make it, especially since much of the time will be spent outside of class, too, working on your writing. How you organize that time is largely up to you.

I attended an MFA program directly after graduating from college, largely because I knew, right then, that I had the time I might not otherwise find later in life. There were classmates in the program that were older, who’d been writing for a long time, and had other careers first—some related to writing, some not. For them, that was the right time, and it’s inspiring, that the dream of writing hadn’t been abandoned. There they were, and now they’re continuing to succeed at it. It’s never “late”.

I think only an individual would know when in life they’d find the moment to deal with the workload.

WOW: It’s great to know that, should one choose, you can enroll in an MFA program at any stage in life. In your opinion, is there a certain type of writer that would benefit most from enrolling in an MFA program?

Karen: If there were a common denominator it might be to love writing, to want that writing life, that period of time to contemplate and read and write and most importantly, to be surrounded by other people who are just as excited about writing.

An MFA is an investment of time. It isn’t necessarily going to turn into a ticket to something else. It might. It might not. Not everyone has the desire to teach creative writing after the MFA, either, which is one of the reasons for an MFA—it’s a terminal degree in Creative Writing, and it’s what you’d need, along with published books and so much more, to one day become a professor.

But there are many who return to whatever line of work they were in before, or who go on to work in publishing or in something entirely different, so the usefulness and the mileage—as an advanced degree—is going to depend largely on you, what you want to make of it. If you go into the program thinking about it in terms of “What will I do with this afterwards?” the answer may be a lot, or not as much, or even nothing, since there are always stories about writers who stopped writing once they were done with the MFA. The flip side of the coin exists too: people who never went through an MFA program who succeed at writing and never give that up.

It might be more useful to think of an MFA program as a chance to participate in a conservatory environment for a few years. Then see what happens next. If you know writing is what you want to do, life-long, you’re going to find ways to keep doing that regardless.

WOW: What is a good way to go about researching MFA programs to find the best fit?

Karen: I’ve encountered this question before, and one of the most astute answers I’ve heard given was by a peer, who said to consider the alumni that have been published. Why? It doesn’t necessarily mean the program was that adept at teaching them how to go about getting published (pursuing an MFA is no guarantee of publication), nor that the faculty taught those writers everything they know, by far, (how could we measure this, or ever tell for certain?) but it does say a lot about the program’s ability to attract talent in the first place. After all, if the program can attract very strong writers, these are the very writers that will become your classmates, the people you’ll have dialogue with, and that’s important in terms of reading each other’s work and getting feedback.

There are other factors to consider too—where you are in life right now, if you’d be willing to move across the country if need be, if the program offers enough funding for those who are admitted. Do you prefer a relatively large program a smaller one? Does it matters to you whether or not that program also has a literary journal (which can be a nice benefit if you have the opportunity to become a reader at a journal, both for the experience and for the ability to really see what is being written by others). I think by the time a writer has decided to pursue an MFA seriously, they will have acquired an understanding of the process—by reading, by word of mouth or recommendation from teachers or from other MFA students.

Thanks, Karen, for giving us great information and some direction about MFA programs. We look forward to the August issue to hear what you have to say about getting poetry published!


Anonymous said...

Great interview! thanks!

Lisa Romeo said...

I've just finished an MFA (nonfiction) and can second a lot of what Karen says.

One thing I might change: My low residency program didn't offer teaching experience, which at the time I thought made sense, because I couldn't imagine how it would have gotten squeezed into an already agressive schedule.
However, now that I've finished, I think it would have been beneficial to have had that component - not necessarily to be able to teach at college level, but for an understanding of the whole teaching-of-writing model, even when applied to adult ed and other nonacademic situations.

My blog has a lot of info on MFAs; just now I'm in that "what now" phase. I know I will keep writing, but the questions remain -- how much, what, how to fit the more literary writing into the rest of life, which for me includes freelance journalism.

The degree doesn't solve that dilemma, but as Karen says, makes me confident I can keep going.

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