How to Survive Your M.F.A. in Creative Writing
In the article The Truth about a MFA in Creative Writing, I dispelled the myths about the graduate degree. I learned these lessons the hard way. I earned a MFA in Creative Writing from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in July 2017. If you are thinking about getting a MFA, you need to understand what you are getting yourself into.
MFA Aspects Out of Your Control
There will be aspects of your MFA program you have no control over. I had no idea how lack of control in professors and courses would have such a negative impact on my MFA experience.
Lack of Instructors
Do not pick your school based on the professors. I didn’t do this, but some of my peers did. Professors go on sabbatical, have babies, and switch departments or schools on a fairly regular basis. There is no guarantee the professor you want will be there while you are.
The summer before I started my MFA some serious drama went down in the writing program, causing half of the professors to leave. At the same time one professor was on maternity leave and another was on sabbatical. This meant two of my courses were taught by people who were hired a few weeks before class started and handed somebody else’s syllabus outside their expertise to work with. I hated both courses and paid a lot of money for them.
The program continued to be understaffed throughout my two years. By the time I finished, two more professors had moved to different departments and half the courses were taught by new adjutants. My peers who choose our school for specific instructors were not able to study with those professors. Don’t let this be you. Don’t pick your school based on its professors.
Shortage of Courses and Graduate Assistantships
Don’t be fooled by your school’s course catalog. Just because they offered certain courses in the past, doesn’t mean they will be offered while you are there. Call the department head and ask about the courses you wish to take, so you have a better chance of them being offered during your MFA.
Due to a lack of professors and the fact that many of those who left taught prose, a fiction course wasn’t offered until my second year. That means I spent three entire semesters (fall, spring, and summer) in a writing program without studying plot, character development, scenes, setting, or anything related to writing a story. Make sure your program has a plethora of instructors who specialize in your broad area of writing.
Most writing programs will say they offer graduate assistantships as teaching assistants, writing center tutors, and instructors, but be sure to look into requirements to get those positions. Sometimes you need to be a second year or have taken certain courses.
In my case, you needed to take pedagogy to be able to hold any of the graduate assistantships. Due to the lack of professors, I was not able to take pedagogy until the fall of my second year, so I wasn’t allowed to apply for an assistantship until the end of my final fall semester. Don’t bank on getting a graduate assistantship during your MFA program.
Biases, Prejudice, and Incompetence
MFA programs slant toward a specific style of writing. Be sure you understand what that slant is before applying or attending a program. I did not do this. I knew they leaned toward literary fiction, but I did not understand the extent of the bias and the pressure they would put on me to change my style of writing.
Poetry Good, Genre Fiction Bad
If you are hoping to write genre fiction novels or nonfiction, a MFA is probably not for you. You may have heard academia puts literary fiction on a pedestal. Academia holds poetry above all else, then literary prose slightly lower. Then academic essays, and squashed beneath their shoe is genre fiction.
My program in particular loved experimental writing – the kind of writing only another writer into experimental writing wants to read. I was pressured to write poetry and hybrid pieces I hated and considered garbage. (This does not include my classmates’ pieces. Many of them were quite good.)
Do not expect your writing professors to give every student and their writing the same time and effort. They will pick favorites. This happened in more than one of my classes.
The worst semester by far was my first. One instructor assigned poems. She literally told us to write poems. About three quarters of the way through the class, she said poems meant any sort of creative writing. How was I or anyone else supposed to know that? I wasted most of that class forcing myself to write terrible poems. In addition, I didn’t receive a single piece of feedback on my writing from that instructor. Later I learned some of my peers had received great feedback from her.
Throughout my MFA I did not receive the feedback I paid for. Multiple professors didn’t consider my writing worth their time. They gave my pieces a check mark and my peers’ pieces margin notes and paragraphs of detailed critique. In workshop, I more than once was told by peers they couldn’t critique my work because they weren’t prose writers or because I only submitted a portion of a story due to page count restrictions. This is unacceptable.
Do not be that student. Give the kind of feedback you wish to receive on your own writing. Do your best to ignore the blatant favoritism and incompetence you will encounter during your MFA. Take the genuine feedback that will make your piece better and toss everything else in the garbage.
Finding the Good in a Bad MFA
MFA programs, even ones like mine, are not all bad. You will learn valuable life lessons and writing skills. You will make friends and get to write a lot. I’ve shared things that went wrong in my MFA. Now I’d like to talk about how to learn despite the bad.
Break the Rules
During your MFA program, your way of thinking about writing will be challenged. Try not to get defensive. There will be a time when your way of writing isn’t the best for a specific situation or piece, and your way definitely isn’t the only way. A MFA will help you learn when you need to take a different approach.
I am a rule follower. I always have been – sometimes to a fault. Because my MFA program focused on experimental writing, I learned how to see beyond the rules and when to challenge them. My writing has become less rigid. I am willing to use fragments where they are needed, to adjust the form of a piece, and to try something new. Now, I enjoy playing with different points of view and the overall form of a short story on the page. This is something I wouldn’t have discovered without my MFA program.
If you think receiving a form rejection from an acquiring editor is devastating, you are not ready for a MFA in Creative Writing. You will have professors and classmates say to your face how much they don’t like your piece. Sometimes your piece does need work. Sometimes they don’t like your style of writing and want to mold you into a writer more like them.
I had peers and professors tell me fiction wasn’t worth writing. They said I should focus on creating poetry and experimental hybrid pieces. Because of them, I recognize the difference between constructive feedback, critique for the sake of critique (aka “because I have to”), and people disguising their dislike for a specific genre or style as feedback.
You will need to learn this if you are going to be a writer. Not every piece you write is worth publishing, and not every reader is going to like your writing.
A Better Editor
Exposing yourself to different styles of writing and difficult situations will make you a better critique partner and potential editor. Like me, you will learn when you don’t enjoy a piece because it isn’t your cup of tea versus when a piece needs work.
I was unable to edit poetry, hybrid, and experimental writing before my MFA because I didn’t understand them. Now, I get what writers are trying to do with these genres, can see when they are and are not working, and know how to help writers improve in these areas.
Why an Editor Doesn’t Recommend a MFA in Creative Writing
Because my MFA experience wasn’t good, I can’t recommend a MFA in Creative Writing, especially if you want to write genre fiction. I do enjoy having the degree and letters after my name, but that is mostly because I used to want to go to medical school and needed another graduate degree.
At the same time, I am a better writer for having gone. What I do recommend is an education in writing. You can get this through a MFA, writers’ conferences, writing classes outside of a degree, and/or by reading books in your genre, outside it, and about writing. You don’t have to have a MFA in Creative Writing to be an amazing writer. All you need is to continue to try and get better. To keep learning about the craft and mastering new techniques. To keep writing. You don’t need a degree to Ignite Your Ink.
What is your experience with MFAs in Creative Writing? Share it in the comments. For more truths about the publishing industry, tips on writing, and advice from an editor, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.