An MFA versus the Real World: Answering Katja Zurcher's Questions

A friend of mine connected me with the lovely Katja Zurcher (remember that name for the future), a smart, talented junior at Rhodes College in Tennessee. Katja has already accomplished much with her writing, and is now in that familiar place many young writers find themselves, deciding whether or not to go on for an MFA. I told my friend I'd be glad to answer whatever questions Katja had, partly because I did go straight after college, at least the first time. I don't think anything I've done has been a mistake for me, but it really makes me feel for these younger writers. And when Katja sent her questions, I thought they were so astute and so pertinent that they had to be answered on the blog. If anyone else has direct questions about either the MFA or PhD in fiction experience, I'll be happy to answer. Just post them in the comments section below. And if you missed it, you might want to read an earlier, extended post I did on this. You can also take a look at novelist Ronlyn Domingue's take (just scroll down to where that question is asked). And most importantly, good luck!

1. What do you think are the benefits of taking some time off to work between undergraduate and grad school? Any cons?

I think there are only benefits. Working for even one or two years will test your commitment to your writing. If you can work a 40+ hour a week job and still make time for your writing, then it probably means it's very important to you, and that an MFA would do you well in the future. It will also give you and your writing more time to mature, and help you develop and polish writing samples. I used to tell my students "don't go into academia at all unless you can't bear to do anything else," but the problem with that advice is that if you're 21 or 22, all you know is school. So you really don't know what you can and cannot bear. The only con I can think of is that if you find a job you love, you may decide you don't want to go back to school, but as long as you're happy and you're writing, that's not much of a con, is it?

2. Do students work closely with an advisor/mentor, or is it more of an individual experience?

This depends very much on the program. In general, the larger the program, the less individual attention you will get from professors and mentors. If/when you decide to go, make sure you find out what the mentoring experience is like from current and former students. But keep in mind that MFA programs often change faculty like Sarah Jessica Parker changes clothes, so do your homework on that, too. Some turnover is healthy and good. But if the place is run by famous visiting faculty, that's not so good. That said, I have had some fantastic mentors in my life, including the late Dan Stern, who actually took the time to call me one semester when I ended up in the hospital.

3. Are there formal/informal seminars on publishing and the business of writing?

This is the point I found weak at most places I've visited and been. Most programs focus on the art and craft first, and really, this is the right way around. After all, what is most likely to get you published is good, mature writing. However, it wouldn't hurt for you to know a little about the writing business before you went to graduate school, or even while you were there. You would be surprised at how different the "real world" of publishing is from the "literary world" of most programs. Good writing is always good writing, but most MFA programs are going to push you literary. If that's what you want to write, great, but if you are at all interested in coming out and writing for a more mainstream audience, you might want to get your publishing advice somewhere else. There are also many seminars and writers' conferences out there that have absolutely nothing to do with academia. If you worked for awhile first, you could also go to some of those.

4. Do you have any advice on choosing writing samples?

Definitely. Choose a short story, not an excerpt from a novel, unless the program says otherwise. Unless the excerpt is extremely strong, it will be much less likely to stand a chance against a polished, completed short story. For one thing, it's hard to see how a writer will control the arc of the story from only a section of a novel, and for another, the kind of polish and pacing you will demonstrate in a story will almost always be chosen. Now that I've seen this from the other side of the desk, I feel even more strongly about it. You also want to choose your very best work, not something rough or experimental, and you want to choose something that showcases your unique voice. Most programs take students who already have a strong voice, or at least the promise of it. Also, many programs won't accept someone writing genre fiction, so make sure your sample is strong, literary fiction. If you want to write genre, find out the programs that don't frown on that (there are some), and send to those.

5. Do you have any advice for prospective students?

An MFA can be a wonderful experience, but what you learn there, you can learn elsewhere, if you have the right kind of discipline and a good critique group. MFAs are best for students who already know they are writers and have already found their own voices, not for someone just starting out. On the other hand, my first MA (which was a creative M.A. at the University of Cincinnati) was very nurturing and supportive and seemed a little more open to writers with less experience. I do feel it shaped me, and almost all for the good. Those professors have moved on now to other programs, but I can't imagine having started out without them. If you can get good funding (and some programs have it), it's a great way to spend three years of your life immersed in learning about the craft. You will sow seeds for later, even if later turns out to be 15-20 years.


Joy said…
This was an awesome discussion! For someone thinking of going back to school, this answers a lot of questions for me too. Thanks for sharing this!
kenyonn2000 said…
Wow, fabulous and insightful, a must read for students thinking about where they want to go with their career...great job Kathryn!