21 Jul

Why Many MFA Programs are Imperfect

Posted in DIY MFA, MFA and Beyond

I recently wrote a post about the MFA dilemma: should writers go back to graduate school or not?  One of the reasons I gave for not recommending an MFA program to most writers is that most MFA programs have serious flaws.  Today we address those flaws.

1) They’re expensive.  Many MFA programs offer little-to-no funding.  A recent ranking of MFA programs done by Poets & Writers magazine takes funding into account, giving it more weight.  For details on the methodology of that ranking, see this article.  Even so, funding does not solve all problems.  Rarely do institutions give graduate students money for free, and often this funding comes with added responsibilities like teaching or research.  Money’s great, but many times it comes with strings and lots of politics attached.  Even if the MFA program you’re considering offers a full-ride plus stipend, find out exactly what responsibilities you’re signing on to before you snap up the funds.

2)  The MFA concept is not based on reality.  In his book, The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, Tom Kealey talks about how going to an MFA program is like “drawing a line in the sand… you are staking a claim to being a writer, and you’re letting everyone around you know it.”  This idea that we as writers owe it to ourselves to invest in our writing is lovely.  In theory.  The problem is many writers dedicate themselves to their writing for two years and then what?  Where do they go next?  While I believe that we do want to stake our claim as writers, I don’t believe putting life on hold for two years is the way to do it.  Instead, I think we owe it to ourselves to create a life where writing, literature and craft, are an integral part of our day-to-day.  There is a time and place or putting life on hold to study and it’s called undergrad.  Graduate school is about making your study an integral part of your life.

3)  Many MFA programs can have a competitive streak.  Part of what adds to the allure of the higher degree is that not everyone can have one.  Some writers just don’t make the cut.  Sure, the application process is a necessary evil because given how many writers want to attend and how relatively few open spots exist, there has to be a way of selecting who gets in and who doesn’t.  The problem is that to get in to an MFA program, being a serious writer is often not enough.  Most of the writers who end up getting the “We are pleased to inform you…” letter are already strong writers to begin with.  The way the system is set up, the strong get stronger and the writers who are not as far along but have lots of potential end up falling through the cracks.

The competition doesn’t end when you get into the program.  I saw some writers who were less developed in their writing receive harsh backlash from others.  Some academic programs use competition to push the students toward success, but in writing success is not a zero-sum game.  One writer’s triumph doesn’t automatically imply another’s failure.  Sometimes when the competition bug sneaks up it’s hard to remember that.

4)  Non-literary fiction is often discriminated against.  I went to an MFA program where I was able to study Writing for Children.  Despite graduates from this concentration having a strong publication record, Writing for Children students were often treated like the bastard stepchildren of the program.  Most other students didn’t know our concentration even existed and those who did often were surprised that we “could actually write well.”  These days, there are maybe a half-dozen or so programs that grant MFA’s in Writing for Children, and even fewer ones that consider commercial fiction (such as romance, thrillers, scifi or fantasy).  Sure, literary fiction is wonderful–I’m a huge fan–but it’s only one slice of the literature pie.  Considering how the publishing world is evolving, literary fiction isn’t exactly the fastest-growing slice either.  So why aren’t other genres proportionately represented in the realm of MFA?  That’s a subject of a whole other post.  Suffice it to say that there are many fabulous writers exploring genres that are not strictly “literary” and that many of those writers would love a chance to deepen their study.

Take-Home Message:  In the end, the loss isn’t that of the writers.  There are plenty of ways that writers can gain the benefits of the MFA without actually doing an MFA.  (We’ll get to that tomorrow.)  The truth is, I feel bad for the programs themselves.  By making MFA degrees available only to an elite few, these programs miss out on the benefit of interacting with many talented writers who are excited about their craft.  While I certainly still stay in touch with many of my fellow MFA-folk, I have found several talented writers outside this community whom I am proud to call my friends, colleagues and mentors.  People who do the MFA but don’t isolate themselves to it are the ones who benefit the most.  The students who miss out are those who try to hold on to that MFA world forever.

OK, so I’ve expressed the flaws of MFA programs, and I’ve talked about the great things you can get out of an MFA.  Next I’ll be sharing with a little more about DIY MFA and how you can fit some of those benefits into your life without actually doing an MFA.  After all, DIY MFA is about creating an empowered and sustainable writing life and to do that we have to start by actually living.

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20 Jul

4 Great Things I Learned from the MFA

Posted in DIY MFA, MFA and Beyond

On Monday I talked about why I wouldn’t recommend an MFA to an aspiring writer, and I must admit that I feel a little like the black sheep of the MFA community.  Lest you all start to think that I’m just hating on grad school just to be contrary, I thought I’d do a post about the positive sides of my MFA experience.  The truth is, I both loved and un-loved the experience, and I’m OK with that dichotomy.  Here are 4 Great Things I Learned from the MFA.

Writing is a Priority.  When you invest the kind of time, effort–and let’s face it, finances–to go to graduate school, you have to make writing a priority.  Going back to school is a way of showing yourself and those around you that this writing habit is here to stay and you’re making it a top priority in your life.

When you make writing a priority, that’s when you start seeing results in the quality of your work.  I see this in a lot of my students.  At some point, they make a shift from dragging their feet to not being able to tear themselves away from their writing.  And that’s when the magic starts happening.  It’s really true: the more you write, the harder it is NOT to write, and when you hit that sweet-spot your writing starts to improve dramatically.

You Have to Read the Literature.  Until I went to graduate school, I thought that “literature” meant the classics-with-a-capital-C.  When I took my literature study courses in children’s writing, however, I noticed that the syllabus was a mix of classics, contemporary books and even some books I wouldn’t have considered “worthy” of serious study because they seemed rather silly.

The professor in this class helped me see the “literature” as the whole body of work that my own writing fits into and for the first time, I started reading books I would usually consider “pleasure reading” as part of my own personal literature study.  Now I no longer pass value judgments on what I choose to read, but select books based on how they broaden my understanding of how my work fits into this greater context.

A different literature professor taught me another valuable lesson about reading.  On the first day of class he said: “There are millions of books in the world and life’s too short to read them all.  I don’t want you wasting your precious reading time on something you can’t get through.  If you can’t get past page 5, stop.”  Of course, if we chose to stop reading an assigned book, we then had to defend our reasons for that decision in the following class, but this professor showed me that I had to respect my own reading time.  Since then, I’ve stopped forcing myself to get through books that just don’t resonate with me.  Yes, I give them an honest-to-goodness try, but if I can’t get past the first chapter, I stop.  Life’s too short, after all.

You Can Survive a Harsh Critique.  Let’s face it, some fellow MFA students are more well-versed in the art of tact than others.  Sooner or later, you’re going to get a harsh critique and you have to learn to deal with it.  For me, the pivotal moment came when I stopped thinking of the work as an extension of me.  This realization came sometime in my second semester, when I started submitting my work to literary magazines.  Getting rejection after rejection forced me to take a step back and say: “You know what?  I am not the work.  I’m me, and the work’s the work.  They are two separate things and if the work gets rejected it’s nothing personal.”  After that, my attitude in workshop went from being “please be nice” to “bring it on!”

When It Comes to a Writing Community, You Get Back What You Put Into It.  Although the program itself introduced me to a phenomenal writing community, I quickly realized that this was only the beginning.  I started making conferences a priority.  I began connecting with other writers through blogs and twitter and in-person events.  It became brutally obvious that while the MFA did provide a ready-made and wonderful community, to keep it up post-graduation I would have to put in a little more time and effort.

Every semester, we were required to attend 8 events in the writing community.  My first semester in the program, I attended only events sponsored by the school (there were plenty to choose from, after all, and I didn’t know where else to look).  Slowly, as I started getting more plugged into the writing world, I began to branch out.  My last semester, I think I went to 12 or 15 events, only 4 of which were school-sponsored.  The others were readings, conferences, workshops and talks I found by connecting with fellow writers.  This experience taught me that MFA events are a great place to start, but in the end the goal is to connect with the greater writing community.

Any of these resonate with you?  Which do you find most challenging?  (For me it’s definitely the first one… making writing a priority.)


18 Jul

MFA or Not?

Posted in DIY MFA, MFA and Beyond

Some time ago, I blogged about the question: To MFA or Not To MFA?  Since then, several other people, including my fellow New School-ers over at Teen Writers Bloc, have addressed this topic.  Lately, as I figure out what direction I want to take with DIY MFA, I’ve been thinking a lot about the MFA in general.  If I could do it over again, would I choose to do a writing degree?  Absolutely.  I’m glad I went to graduate school because it has allowed me the opportunity to share the ins and outs of it with all of you.  DIY MFA would not exist it it wasn’t for my own graduate experience and for that I am happy I did it.

Yet, if another aspiring writer came to me and asked for advice, would I recommend an MFA?  Absolutely not.  Sounds like a contradiction, right?  On one hand I’m glad I did an MFA, but on the other I wouldn’t recommend it to fellow writers.  Believe me, there is a method to this madness.

Why I Would Not Recommend an MFA to Most Aspiring Writers

1) Most MFA Programs are seriously flawed.  I discussed these flaws briefly in this previous post, but I’ve since given this topic more thought and will be doing a more detailed post on the flaws of MFA programs later this week.  Suffice it to say for now that many MFA programs create an environment where only a privileged few are able to deepen their study of writing, a fact that flies in the face of my own intrinsic notions of universal fairness.

2) Many writers do MFA’s because they think it’s the only way to get where they want to be in their writing careers.  This is often not the case.  Let’s face it, there are other ways to study craft and literature.  (Um, it’s called reading and last time I checked, library cards were free.)  You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars a year to find a critique group or attend literary events.  In fact, when I started graduate school, I had already been part of a critique group for two years and had attended numerous conferences, readings and other such events in the writing community.

My point is that there are other options, other ways to broaden your mind as a writer.  I did an MFA because I wanted to teach writing, so I needed the credential.  When DIY MFA began nagging at my brain, I was doubly happy that I had gone for the degree.  But this was me.  Other writers whose dreams lean toward publication rather than teaching can find ways of getting there without jumping through the graduate school hoop.  Sure, an MFA degree won’t hurt but the question is, do you really need it?

3) Writers who have done MFA’s are more likely to recommend it to others because they’re experiencing Cognitive Dissonance.  What is cognitive dissonance, you ask?  It’s a psychological theory (developed by Leon Festinger) who found that when people’s behaviors contradict their beliefs, they are likely to adjust their beliefs to justify their behaviors.

In a 1959 study, Festinger & Carlsmith had participants do a boring task (turning pegs quarter turns for long periods of time).  Some were paid $1 for doing the task while others were paid $20.  Afterwards, participants were asked to rate the task and surprisingly, those who were paid less ($1) actually rated the experience more positively than those who were paid the $20.  This is because those who got paid $20 had an obvious external reason to motivate them to do this boring task.  Those who only received $1 had to justify to themselves why they would do something so tedious for so little money.  Their beliefs actually changed and they truly believed the task was not as bad as it actually was.

So how does Cognitive Dissonance work with the MFA question?  Many students have to sacrifice a lot to go back to graduate school and in doing so, they are more likely to unconsciously adjust their beliefs to justify that sacrifice.  I’m not saying that all MFA graduates are playing head-games on themselves, but keep in mind that some of them may have a rosier point of view than the experience actually warranted.  This is because it’s just too painful for them to admit that they sacrificed so much for an experience that was only OK.

Take-home Message:  Ultimately, my point is that MFA programs can be a great fit for some people, but you need to take their advice with a grain of salt.  No MFA program is perfect, and chances are it’s closer to so-so than it is to fantastic.  There are other options for writers who want to deepen their study but don’t need the credential.  DIY MFA is just one of those options and I’m looking forward to expanding it so I can share more of it with you.

Now you tell me: What do you think of the MFA-of-Not question?  Would YOU do an MFA in writing?


27 Oct

The Big MFA Question

Posted in DIY MFA, MFA and Beyond, Writing

Today Kidlit.com posted an interesting article: Should You Get an MFA?

This, of course, is the central question to anyone pursuing a DIY MFA.  Should you uproot your life or perform feats of time-management acrobatics in order to go back to school?  Or should you go it alone?

I chose the former and was glad I did because the MFA program taught me several things, though not all necessarily about writing.  We learned about the literature in our field and attended several publishing talks.  Of course, it helped that the program was specific to children’s writing.  At the same time, though, I realized when I graduated that the MFA is not for everybody, which was the whole thought process that motivated DIY MFA back in September.

Now, as we near the end of October, I wanted to check in with all of you who participated in DIY MFA.  How is everything coming along for you?  Have you found some readings to attend and read some good books from your list?

Most importantly, how’s the writing coming?


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