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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Is an MFA right for you?

I'm currently teaching a graduate fiction class, but to students whose master's degree is very general. They don't get to specialize in creative writing. Partly because of this, their natural question at the end of every semester is whether or not they should get an MFA, and upon hearing it, I always have mixed feelings. There are a lot of assumptions out there about MFA programs, and a lot of rumors and myths. I thought I'd take a few minutes and try to dispel some of them:

Myth #1: An MFA provides a paid, uninterrupted time to write. Sometimes this is true, but most often it is not, at least not without going into significant financial debt. It's true that most programs try to get their students Teaching Assistantships, but at many schools, that TA is only enough to foot the tuition bill. And the TA itself may end up taking 20 or more hours out of each week, so keep that in mind as well. Teaching is very time and energy consuming. When I decided to go to graduate school, one of my personal rules was that I would not go into debt to do it. I almost made that work, but I sometimes had to piece together three and four part-time jobs in order to make it happen. That was in addition to the classes and the teaching, which actually left very little time for writing. This is why I tell my students to research the program they are applying to and make sure they know what they're in for. Find out the percentage of students getting financial aid and what kind of aid they're getting. If what you want is time to write, then make sure you choose a program that gives you that, over one with a big reputation.

Myth #2: An MFA will provide you a supportive community in which to explore your art. Again, this depends, especially on what you're writing. If you're writing straight literary fiction, then yes, this is probably true. But if you're writing mystery, sci-fi, or the next great romantic suspense novel, then be careful. First of all, you might not even get in, and secondly, once you're there, you might be looked down upon. There are programs that are more commercially focused, some that are craft focused, and some that are intellectually focused. I chose UH because it was intellectually focused, and at the time, that's what I wanted in a program. As my writing style shifted, I became more and more mainstream, and this caused some clashes in aesthetics. I'm glad in the end to have had this experience, because I got a lot out of those challenges, but I don't think it would be good for the average writer going in wanting to write genre.

If genre is your thing, find a program that allows for that. You may even want to ask straight up how genre is handled in workshop. If it's not handled at all, then you'll probably find out quickly. Also, keep in mind that even if you are writing literary fiction, or even if your program does allow for genre, students can still sometimes be competitive with one another. There are many flaws with the workshop model, and one of them is the idea that everyone must say something uniquely critical in order to get a grade. What I find is this often focuses the discussion in the wrong direction, rather than getting to the heart of the piece and seeing if the idea itself is viable.

Myth #3: You get to sit at the feet of the masters, and you get a lot of one on one mentoring. Again, there is some truth to this, but it's a bit more complex than that. Many programs will advertise that big name writers teach for them, or come in and do short-term residencies. What you need to find out is what that means. Does that mean that you'll get to spend the whole semester with that person, or just the afternoon? Does that mean the famous writer will be reading your work, or do they just come and give a talk? And do you care about this? Personally, I cared more about what I was writing and what I was learning than who it was who was teaching me.

Often I find the writers with the biggest names aren't necessarily the ones who are the best teachers, and part of that is the issue of time. It takes time to read a long manuscript all the way through and make comments (I just did it for one of my own grad students and it took 15 hours). Famous, productive writers seldom have that kind of time. So before you commit to a program, talk to some of the current students and find out who is there and who is actually doing the mentoring. That said, it was exciting to take a playwriting class with Edward Albee (!) and to get to introduce National Book Award winner Richard Powers at a craft talk. My few minutes with Powers before we went on were ones I will cherish the rest of my life, and it is a bit surreal to be face to face with that much greatness.

Myth #4: MFA programs teach you about the business, set you up for a cushy teaching career, and introduce you to editors and agents. Um, no. Sorry, but no. If this is your main reason for going (and you'd be surprised at for how many people it is!), then you'll be in for a very rude awakening. While some tip-top MFA programs do try to get their students an agent if they think they are ready for one, most don't even address this aspect of the business. The entire time I was in graduate school, not once did I hear the word synopsis or query letter. This is because most MFA programs are still heavily slanted towards short fiction, and for short fiction, getting published in literary magazines is the typical track. I think this may be changing; with so many lit mags going out of business, I have a feeling profs are going to have to address this at some point, but most of the traditional programs I know of are still very rooted in that short-fiction, literary, workshop model. And part of that again is time constraints.

That said, UH did bring out agents and editors to meet us a few years ago, and both of my agent meetings went exceedingly well. So good stuff does happen--but you can't count on it, and it can't be your reason for going!

Let me know if you have any other questions for me. I hope this addresses at least some. And I'm sorry if I burst any bubbles, but I get tired of hearing these romanticized accounts of MFA programs, as if every one of them is like the Breadloaf Writers conference, and people are all going to ride around in the back of trucks filled with hay.

13 comments:

Kathryn Paterson said...

By the way, you can find a lot more discussion about MFA programs and the like here: http://www.afterthemfa.com/

The most recent post actually makes some similar points to mine.

Kathryn Paterson said...

And also this:

http://creative-writing-mfa-handbook.blogspot.com/2007/10/opportunities-after-mfa.html

Be sure to read the comments. And yes, I'll shut up now. ;)

Suzan Harden said...

Thanks for providing a clear perspective, Kathryn.

Ironically, I think the best advice I received from a published author with an MFA was to skip the college program (she felt it almost killed her creativity) and to join RWA. More learning for the buck since most chapters have classes on business as well as craft.

Suzan Harden said...

Sorry, didn't mean that last comment as an advertisement. LOL

Joni Rodgers said...

Thanks for this, Dr. Kat. I'm printing this out to use in a workshop I'm giving later today.

I'm frankly baffled by the lack of actual publishing industry know how taught in graduate level writing programs. I can't think of another gig where a masters degree leaves people clueless about making a living in their chosen profession.

One of the reasons established authors need to step up to love and mentor the younglings. For the good of the biz, the art, and the craft.

Kathryn Paterson said...

Joni, it's because many programs (not all) believe that talking about publishing is "distracting to students" and/or "crass." And part of me agrees with them. I think it could be distracting for someone in their early 20s and can perhaps encourage the wrong sort of focus, or maybe even be so discouraging that a promising writer would just give up. BUT I think there should at least be some measure of this information by the time people graduate.

The other thing is that I don't think any program would say that it is preparing students to make a living in the business. They'd say they are just giving them time and space to develop their craft. They accept far too many students for the demand out there, so my guess is they know most of us will get out and never publish. And I am always amazed at seeing the most talented of my classmates years down the line who are not even writing--they've gone on to do other things and are happy, and it boggles my mind, because they were the very ones I thought would make it!

Profs have no way of knowing who's in it for the long haul. My response to that is to be as mentoring as I can to EVERYONE, but frankly that cuts into the time I have for my own craft and is why I'm not as far along as I could be. But deep down, I believe that all my work with students will turn around some day and come back to help me. How I don't know, but I still believe it. What it won't help me get, however, is a tenure track job, and I'm finally okay with that.

Kathryn Paterson said...

And I didn't take it as an advertisement, Suzan! :)

Colleen Thompson said...

Seton Hill is now offering an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. A friend of mine, a published romance author, is completing it and has loved it. She feels it's given her tools to grow in her craft and it will also allow her the credentials to teach, since, sadly, no matter how great your publishing credentials are, you can't teach at an accredited university w/o at least a masters in your content area. And many published authors either enjoy teaching and/or could really use a steady gig with benefits.

I applaud you, Kathryn, for bringing working authors to your classroom to talk to students about the nuts and bolts realities of the work to which so many aspire.

Kathryn Paterson said...

Those MFAs in popular writing are an interesting direction, Colleen and may become the norm. But if anyone thinks an MFA alone will qualify them for a tenure track job, they need to recheck that thinking. Right now there are between 300 and 500 applicants for every job in literature and creative writing.

In order to teach full-time in a creative writing program, you need to have not one, but more like two or three or four books and much teaching experience behind your belt. (A friend of mine just got turned down and she has SIX solidly reviewed, decent selling books)

Right now the statistics overall are that one in every five students in the humanities will EVER get a tenure-track job. Ever. I would tell anyone getting an MFA with thoughts of teaching to do the math and do the research. Sure, you may end up getting to teach college courses as an adjunct, but that pays very little and does not come with benefits. I like it because it's flexible and I'm not locked into a multi-year situation filled with high stakes and high pressure, but I have no illusions that I'm qualified at this point for a full-time job.

For more on this: see http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846/

Gosh, I'm just Bonnie the bearer of bad news today!

Kathryn Paterson said...

Oh, and most MFA programs don't "count" genre publications when looking for faculty. Perhaps the ones in those new popular writing programs will, but in a traditional program, most likely not. On the other hand, if someone just wants to WRITE, I think a program with at least some popular writing component can be a really good way to go. Just don't count on it giving you teaching credentials.

Colleen Thompson said...

You know what? The real writers out there are probably reading this, turning their metaphorical hats 'round backward, and quoting Han Solo: "Never tell me the odds!" Because, heaven knows, the only ones who stick it out are those of us too stubborn or foolish to listen to reason.

And every once in a great while, that mindset works out. :)

Great post, by the way! Does that mean you're feeling better today in spite of the weather?

Kathryn Paterson said...

Somewhat, yes. And I hear you about the stubborn and foolish, because I have always tried to shove all that aside and just do my thing. But I think it's important for people to know what they're getting into, and that the writing life is never going to be easy, no matter what. I think Annie Dillard makes this point in The Writing Life.

Of course, at this point, I'm thinking I'm not going to publish my first book until I'm 70 . . .

Mylène said...

Great--and necessary--post, Kathryn.

As a published writer I'm always torn when it comes to advising young people about grad school and writing. I have some experience teaching in MFA programs, but none at all in pursuing an MFA. My doctorate is in English, not creative writing, and I chose that path in response to pure, gut instinct that told me I needed to read and study literature before I attempted to write. And that's all. But the bent and needs of the individual mind, the level of experience you already have behind you, and the way you want to live your life both during and after grad school seem to me to be the primary considerations. I could not agree more that there are no guarantees, no one path that is beyond dispute better than the others, no one program that would best suit all. What is not in question: aspiring MFA-seekers need more honest, real-world reports like this one. Kudos, K.