Letter to a Someone…

Letter to a Someone Considering an MFA -- and also to Someone Else Who Flagrantly Dismissed Such Programs

I think there's a lot of misinformation floating around about writing programs (as I just saw on a mailing list), so I'm going to try to address a few of those points in a more substantial manner. Just so you know where I'm coming from, here's my relevant history -- feel free to skip to the good stuff:

MARY ANNE'S WRITING HISTORY:

  • 1989 - 1993: University of Chicago, English lit. major, took one creative writing class while a secretary at the university after graduation (free)
  • some years of working secretarial jobs and writing; published quite a bit in this time, decided I wanted more concentrated study time
  • 1996 - 1998: MFA at Mills College (and summer six-week intensive at Clarion West in '97)
  • one year of working as a tech writer to pay back bulk of MFA costs
  • one year of adjuncting, first at Salt Lake City Community College, then University of Utah, teaching comp., not creative writing
  • 2000 - 2005: Ph.D. in Creative Writing at University of Utah
  • (through this time, wrote and edited various books -- a couple collections, a couple anthologies, and two very odd ones that are hard to explain, one of which was a work-for-hire without my name on it)
  • 2005: published Bodies in Motion with HarperCollins (my 9th book, including various titles I'd edited, but the first real one I'd written for a major press) in a two-book deal; the second book, the novel, was cancelled a year later due to artistic differences (they wanted something much more commercial, essentially, than I was comfortable writing)
  • 2006 - 2008: taught visiting gigs at Vermont College (low-residency MFA), Roosevelt University, Northwestern University
  • 2008 - present and ongoing: Clinical Assistant Professor at University of Illinois in Chicago, teaching fiction writing, colonial & post-colonial literature, and various other lit. courses; have written various books in the last few years, one of which is currently being shopped around by my agent
Okay. So there's my experience and biases. Here's some facts and opinions.

1. COST

You should NOT be paying $80,000 for a MFA program (as was cited on that aforementioned mailing list). My own MFA (Mills College) was too expensive, in retrospect, and even that only cost me $40K -- and that's a false number, really, because $30K of that was student loan living expenses for the two years that I chose to be a full-time writing student and not have a job. (Many of my classmates worked full or part-time during their MFAs and didn't take out nearly as much (if anything) in living expense loans.)

Only $10K of that was tuition -- it covered my first year, and the second year, I received full tuition remission, which Mills gave to almost all its students in exchange for working in the writing center or TA'ing a class. So not so bad, and even so, I realize now that I paid more than necessary, because I didn't do my research in advance, and didn't realize that at the better programs, the top students are admitted with much better financial support. In retrospect, I wish I'd waited a year, improved my writing, and applied again in hopes of getting better funding.

1b. GETTING PAID TO ATTEND

One of the writers I tutor recently applied to MFA programs -- she's been admitted to three programs so far, all with full tuition remission and a solid living stipend. In exchange, she'll likely do some teaching -- which will be good for her in two ways -- it'll help her with her own writing, and it will give her experience as a teacher, which will be helpful in the job hunt if she does decide she wants to teach after her degree. Yes, graduate students are often horribly underpaid per class compared even to adjuncts, much less professors -- they're basically serfs for the university. It's sort of like the medieval journeymen in the guild system -- you accept a mediocre deal for a few years to learn from the masters, and you learn on the job.

I tell my students now, if you aren't getting a full ride on acceptance to a program, seriously think about whether the degree is worth doing, and whether you can afford it. The MFA Blog is a GREAT resource for finding out which programs give good financial support to their students.

1c. Ph.D. PROGRAMS IN CREATIVE WRITING

I'm not going to talk about these programs at length now, but just in terms of cost, it is absolutely standard that THEY pay YOU to attend, as with any Ph.D. My program (Utah) gave me full tuition remission for the entire degree, plus a $10K/year stipend for teaching three classes (composition, business writing, creative writing). (It was enough to live on, barely. Many of my classmates had roommates and a part-time job; I borrowed money instead.)

In my second year, I won a fellowship that reduced my teaching load to one class. And in my third/fourth years, I won another fellowship that raised it to $12K / year with no teaching -- just solid time that I was being paid to read and write fiction. It was blissful. When I finally sold BODIES IN MOTION the following year (it was my Ph.D. dissertation, a creative work), I was rather gleeful that I had been paid twice to write the book -- once by my graduate program, and once by the publisher.

NOTE: If you want to teach literature as well as creative writing (which I recommend, as it is great fun getting to talk about your favorite books at length), you will have a better chance on the job market with a Ph.D.

NOTE 2: At no point in this process was I rich. They call it 'starving grad student' for a reason. But I got by.

2. PROFESSIONALIZATION AS A WRITER

I know there are a few MFAs out there that are that hideously expensive, but unless you are independently wealthy, I think it's a TERRIBLE idea to spend that kind of money on an arts degree. MFAs (in fiction, music, visual arts, theatre arts) are NOT like MBAs. You should have no expectation of professionalization as an artist at the end of your degree -- most MFA programs make no promises along those lines, and indeed, do not ever even address such issues as manuscript submission process, finding an agent, knowing what to look for in a contract, etc. and so on.

Now, personally, I would prefer that they did address those issues, at least briefly, because most new writers are horribly nave on these issues and I hate to see students get burned by scam artists, but historically, MFA programs have never been oriented in that direction, and expect you to learn the business side of writing on your own (or perhaps at writing conferences). They teach art and craft.

3. PROFESSIONALIZATION AS A TEACHER

Aside from learning how to write better, the other thing graduate programs are geared for is to teach you to teach. They're generally okay at it, but please be aware that you will likely not be teaching creative writing when you graduate. An MFA or MA will qualify you to teach composition -- to teach creative writing, you also need substantial publications.

I spent a year after my MFA adjuncting at Utah (before I started the Ph.D. there). I taught four classes a semester, plus two in the summer, and earned $24,000 for the year, which is enough to live comfortably in Salt Lake City, if your tastes aren't extravagant. I worked on average about 30 hrs / week during the semester, and 10 hrs / week in the summer, which left plenty of time to write. (One semester, I stacked my four courses on Tues / Thurs, which was a bit grueling, but gave me five full days a week completely free to write! (Okay, plus grading and prep time, but still.)) So for me, teaching composition was a fine day job, and much better than the secretarial work I'd been doing before my MFA.

You do have to be careful, though -- teaching, like parenting, will suck up as much time as you want to give it. Students are needy. Some people end up so swamped in their teaching that they end up with no writing time. You have to be careful and smart about your approach, and protect your writing time.

FINAL NOTES

Look, I published a dozen stories, twice as many poems, and a book before I ever did an MFA. You absolutely don't need to do a graduate degree to be a writer, obviously. But I admit, I'm pretty tired of people who have essentially no experience with MFA programs just dismissing the value of years of concentrated full-time study and the wisdom of experienced writers -- I learned SO MUCH from my professors, and from my classmates, who were very serious about their writing and very invested in writing well.

They cared tremendously about the art and craft of writing -- and mostly, they kept their business / publishing anxieties to themselves. We all knew, going in, that the arts are just insanely competitive, and that many great works are never published, due to the vagaries of the marketplace. A lot of medioce crap IS published too, because that's what the public wants. Any dancer, actor, musician knows the same. It's the risk we run, trying to create, that all our efforts will vanish into obscurity. Any writer who thinks an MFA will guarantee publication is sadly deluded -- and clearly, hasn't done their research before going in.

The years I spent in graduate school were pretty much pure joy -- they were a gift of time, and I am so grateful that I could afford to take the time to do them. Many writers don't have that option -- they have families to support, children to raise, or other financial burdens that make it difficult to pursue full-time study. And that's fine. (Although they might want to look into the low-residency option!) But just as I don't dismiss or denigrate the writing of writers without graduate degrees, I rather expect the courtesy of not having my own work (as student, writer, and teacher) dismissed and denigrated.

And I have to think that the criticism (which does, almost always, flow from the un-degreed towards the degreed, rather than the other way around) may well spring from a deep anxiety, an insecurity about the value of your own work. I might suggest that one stop critiquing other approaches to writing, and concentrate on improving one's own work, in whichever way works best for you at any given point.

The end.

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