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.
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